Thanksgiving in the Boundary Waters
As ice forms, the canoe season in the BWCA ends. Until the ice is solid, winter travel by ski, snowshoe, and dog mushing cannot begin. This transition period occurs around Thanksgiving and creates a human vacuum in the Boundary Waters. There’s good reason for the absence of people: this is the darkest and dreariest time of the year, with gray skies and below freezing temperatures being the norm.
I can’t imagine a better time for solo backpacking trips on BWCA hiking trails! In a total of eight trips over the past couple decades, I’ve yet to see a single person. As a lover of wilderness solitude, it’s an ideal time to stroll through woods carrying on an animated conversation with myself.
Trails like the Kekekabic, Border Route, and Sioux Hustler allow me to walk through the onset of winter. Some trips I’ve wandered through a few inches of snow, others over a foot. I don’t bring skis or snowshoes because they get in the way when climbing around downed trees. I recall taking the Caribou Rock spur off the Border Route and crawling on my hands and knees under the endless deadfalls while getting soaked by melting snow. The bird’s eye views of young ice shrouding Duncan Lake compensated me well for my cold hands and snow-crusted knees. And at dusk, I stood enraptured on a cliff above Moss Lake, an audience of one, as the ice orchestrated an otherworldly symphony.
Following a trail through deep snow can be tedious, requiring backtracking every time I lose the trail. On the north side of the Snowbank Trail, I moved at a snail’s pace over the extended sections of bare rock. I routinely paused to dust off stumps with my trekking poles until I found the scant rock cairns to guide me.
Several years ago, on both the west and east sides of Snowbank, wolf tracks guided me along the trail. I followed them on the Sioux Hustler a year later, too. On the last day of that trip I passed the small falls on the Little Indian Sioux River and stopped for lunch. Sitting beneath a thickly branched fir with the map on my lap, I alternately gazed down at the map and watched gobs of downy snow rain down. Motion brought my attention to the trail – less than seventy-five feet away stood a wolf.
My first reaction was, “Don’t move. You’ll scare him.” Then I realized the wolf was larger than me. I stand 6’5”, but in my seated position the wolf stood taller. In that moment, I no longer felt like I occupied the top rung of the food chain. Despite my uneasiness, I remained still and watched.
The wolf noticed me the same time I saw him. He took a few hesitant steps toward me. He cocked his head, assessing me. He dropped his head into a play bow. He looked me over for a while longer then turned and walked a few paces. He raised a leg and watered a balsam seedling, claiming the trail as his. He gave a few powerful kicks sending snow, moss, and leaves flying. Then the wolf vanished into the snowy haze.
The heavy snow restricted my gaze and silenced the woods, and sitting alone during the start of hibernation season magnified the experience. I sat amazed. I’ve seen many wolves in the wild, but this was the first I’ve watched so closely. Interacting with the wolf and feeling like I’d dropped a notch on the food chain are part of what makes wilderness a magical place.
Walking far into the wilderness brings a different magic. I’ve crossed the Kekekabic three times, and the feeling of complete isolation along the middle of the trail is palpable. Knowing the nearest human is miles away grants feelings of vulnerability and self-reliance. I enjoy knowing that my decisions and actions dictate not only my comfort but my safety. Wilderness travel entails assuming risk, a liberating feeling. For me, risk inspires a freedom that accentuates adventures and brightens beauty.
A high season summer trip allows a gentle laziness with family and friends. The rawness of this seasonal transition ensures the need for high exertion and some discomfort. Those challenges married with complete solitude guarantee that wolf encounters and ice orchestras inspire awe.
I’ve spent two years of my life camping in the cold, and even with that experience I still sometimes struggle to leave the security and comfort of the vehicle at the start of the trip. Trading the warm bubble of the car for cold temperatures, strong winds, gray skies, and a heavy load often doesn’t feel like a wise decision. But, it always is.
I recall many details from my earliest trips. Those clear memories are gifts in themselves. Even more, I remember how exquisitely alive I felt. Most importantly, wilderness trips, especially solitary ones where I am the only person for miles, bring me a spiritual inner peace. That is a feeling worth leaving the car and civilized comforts for.
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