BWCA Shell Lake Winter Camping
January 13 - 16, 2011
I was fortunate to be able to join Dan Cooke, Mark Deering, Matt Adams and Matt's daughter Mallory on a winter camping trip into the boundary waters. This was my first BWCA winter camping experience, so I was grateful to have so much experience along to show me the ropes and keep me from freezing to death.
Late Thursday night I met up with the group at the Little Indian Sioux north entry point (#14) of the BWCAW. They had all driven up from the Twin Cities after work that day, so it wasn't until about 11:00 pm that we met in the snow and darkness. We cold camped at the entry point this first night and were off the next morning.
On skis and pulling sleds with our gear, we made our way to Shell Lake on Friday where we would set up camp for two more nights. Our route took us down the Little Indian Sioux River to Upper and Lower Pauness Lakes, then across a lengthy portage to Shell Lake. The weather was nice starting out, but by late afternoon snow developed and made the final portion of the trip a little more challenging. We reached a nice camp location on shell Lake shortly before evening set in, then quickly gathered wood and set up camp. After a delicious dinner of beef stew (previously prepared by Dave Morlock who unfortunately could not make the trip), we laid out the sleeping bags in Dan's home brew winter tent and got some well deserved sleep. During the night we were briefly entertained by the howling of wolves nearby.
On Saturday we ventured out for a day of skiing. Our first stop was another camp also located on Shell Lake that had been set up before New Years by a group from Midwest Mountaineering down in Minneapolis. On the way we discovered that slush, on the lake under a heavy blanket of snow, was becoming a problem for our skis. Once a ski passed through the slush and then hit the cold air, ice would immediately form on the skis and in the bindings.
We visited briefly with the Midwest Mountaineering folks and then continued on toward Little Shell Lake. We didn't make it very far onto Little Shell before the slush and ice began to take its toll on the equipment. Bindings froze up, ice built up on the skis, and I broke a pole trying to knock off ice. The decision was made to return to camp rather than fight the conditions further.
At camp we prepared for a cold night. Forecasts from before we had left predicted temperatures well below zero. We were grateful for the warmth from the tent's stove while dinner was cooked. Tonight we enjoyed Dave's chili, coffee, hot cocoa and a few nips of scotch and whiskey. After a fun evening of talk around the stove, it was time to lay out the sleeping bags once again. We absorbed as much of the remaining heat as possible from the cooling stove, knowing that by morning we'd be relying only on our internal furnaces.
Just before sunrise we all began to stir. Just getting out of the sleeping bag was a challenge. First I had to scrape away a thick layer of frost from the opening of the bag where my breath had solidified, then I had to work free a frozen zipper. But soon the layers were pulled on and the stove rekindled, bringing warmth back quickly. About twelve miles due west at the closest weather station at Crane Lake, the recorded low temperature that morning was -31 below zero. Other nearby locations had the temperature anywhere from -25 to -29. It was so cold that my camera froze up, which explains why I have no photographs from this last day.
The key this final morning was to keep moving while we tore down camp. Once on the skis and pulling sleds, the challenge then switched to not becoming too warm and getting wet with sweat. By the end of the first portage out of Shell Lake, my eyelashes had become frosted, and ice covered my hair, beard and eyebrows. It was an odd feeling sweating under a helmet of ice.
The rest of the trip back was a fair amount of work. The cold added grit to the snow and made pulling the sleds more difficult. It also didn't help that I had broken a metal bend in my sled pole rig which caused the sled to pull unevenly to one side. Still, it was a beautiful day and the scenery was outstanding. The boundary waters has a completely different look in the winter and an even more profound quiet.
Waiting for us at the end of the trail (or "death march") back was the final steep uphill to the entry point. A final pull and we were back to our cars and loading up gear. It was a successful first winter trip for me, and I'm very grateful to have shared it with such a great group of people. Thanks, Dan, Matt, Mallory and Mark (and Dave). I'm looking forward to the next winter trip, so bring on the cold!
Click on any image below for a high resolution version.
The trip begins from the Little Indian Sioux entry point first thing Friday morning.
The group met up at the entry point late Thursday night. We cold camped at the entry point that first night.
When an engineer becomes impatient for breakfast. Dan speeds up the heating process for the morning's oatmeal.
Preparing the sleds.
Dan and Mark get ready to go.
After a short and steep portage down to the Little Indian Sioux River, the trip is under way.
It's a long stretch of river, but the weather is good.
Skiing along the Little Indian Sioux River.
After a few miles, the topography is less flat with more rock outcroppings.
The first portage is around some rapids and a small falls along the Little Indian Sioux River.
Looking down at the rapids along the Little Indian Sioux River.
Winding the sleds around the portage path along the Little Indian Sioux River.
Dan descends down the portage and back to the Little Indian Sioux River.
Lunch break on the Little Indian Sioux River.
Snow begins while avoiding a beaver dam near the junction with Upper Pauness Lake.
Dan on the Little Indian Sioux River near Upper Pauness Lake (first of three).
Dan on the Little Indian Sioux River near Upper Pauness Lake (second of three - my favorite).
Dan on the Little Indian Sioux River near Upper Pauness Lake (third of three).
The weather turns to snow on Upper Pauness Lake. Matt, Mallory and Mark look on.
Pileated woodpecker on the portage from Upper Pauness to Lower Pauness Lake.
Dan cruising down the portage and onto Lower Pauness Lake.
The snow increases as we work our way across Lower Pauness Lake.
Mark enjoys the scenery along the lengthy portage from Lower Pauness to Shell Lake.
Dan works his way up an incline on the portage from Lower Pauness to Shell Lake.
Matt, Mallory and Mark make their way along the portage from Lower Pauness to Shell Lake.
Shell Lake comes into view at the end of the portage from Lower Pauness Lake.
Saturday morning at camp on Shell Lake.
Path made when looking for firewood the evening before.
Our camp on a small peninsula on Shell Lake.
Dan closes up his sleeping bag for the day.
Mark feeds the stove. The stove is Dave Morlock's creation.
Mark, Dan, Mallory and Matt get warm by the stove. The heat creates lots of steam and humidity which fogs the camera lens and makes photo taking a real challenge.
Mark, Dan and Mallory in the tent.
Off on Shell Lake for a day trip of skiing.
Dan and Mark skiing on Shell Lake.
Dan scrapes ice from the skis. Slush under the snow is becoming a problem. When the slush hits the cold air above it freezes instantly.
Dan and Mark discuss the slush and frozen bindings.
Dan on Shell Lake.
Mallory and Dad (Matt) make a path on Shell Lake.
We stop in for a visit to the Shell Lake camp made by the Midwest Mountaineering group. A few of them (Ted and Wendy Paulsen) have been camped here since before New Years.
Skis piled up at the Midwest Mountaineering campsite.
Sierra(?) and Sunny play in the wood cutting area of Midwest Mountaineering's campsite.
Visiting with the Midwest Mountaineering folks.
Back on the skis and heading for the portage into Little Shell Lake.
Covered animal tracks on snowy Shell Lake.
A wolf makes use of the old ski track.
Mark winds his way toward the portage leading to Little Shell Lake.
Stocking the wood pile in advance of a cold night ahead.
Dan at camp on Shell Lake. It's going to get cold tonight!