Return to Angleworm: Solo Winter Camping in the Boundary Waters

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A version of this story was first published in the Winter 2018 issue of The Boundary Waters Journal.

I had been to Angleworm twice before.

The first time was in the winter of 2003. A friend and I loaded up his Subaru Loyale wagon with snowshoes, homemade plastic toboggans and a case of MREs that I got from a distant relative at a family reunion. We hit the road from Madison, WI and a couple stops later were sliding downhill at the South Hegman Lake entry point.

Our plan was to make a loop up through Angleworm and around through Gull and Gun Lakes to get to Fourtown. If all went well we would leave the BWCA at Mudro and make our way back toward the Echo Trail on Picket and Nels Lakes.

Of course, sometimes things don’t go according to plan, and after slogging over the 428 rod portage from Trease to Angleworm we started to reconsider. In the end we settled into Home Lake for a couple nights and made daytrips into Gull and Whiskeyjack Lakes before heading back to South Hegman.

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Krome at the South Hegman pictographs on our 2003 trip to Angleworm.

We didn’t complete our loop, but we did get a taste of winter camping, toboggan travel and woodstoves. We also met a group from the Voyageur Outward Bound School out on a dogsledding trip. Talking with one of the instructors answered a riddle for us. As we walked up the middle of Angleworm we saw several people hunkered down at the edge of the lake, spaced out at intervals. This seemed odd until we learned that these were students set up for the overnight “solo” component of their course.

I didn’t know at the time that I would be back at Angleworm the following spring traveling with the same Outward Bound instructor that I’d met that January afternoon on the lake. I spent much of 2003 working in outdoor education jobs and ended up back at VOBS in spring of 2004 as a summer intern. Our intern training trip started with the infamous Angleworm Portage: a 716 rod hike with an 18 foot Grumman. From Angleworm our route looped through Gull, Thunder and Beartrap Lakes before descending the Beartrap River. The 11 day trip eventually took us far to the eastern end of the BWCA before reversing back down the Kawishiwi River to finish up at the Outward Bound school.

My plan for this winter was to follow a route that closely mimicked the beginning of that training trip. This time, instead of putting in at South Hegman, I would snowshoe the longer, but flatter, Angleworm portage. My route would take me into the Beartrap River from Beartrap Lake and down the river into Iron Lake. I wanted to see Curtain Falls in the winter.

In the weeks leading up to the trip I gave my friend Ryan a call to ask his advice.  Ryan  led dogsled trips for Outward Bound for three seasons in the early 2000’s, and did a trip up into Sunday Bay of Crooked Lake on one of his courses. On the phone we discussed possible route options and a couple of potential winter portages. One from Sunday Lake up into Sunday Bay, and another from Sunday Bay across into Iron Lake. I wanted to do a loop trip that took in Curtain Falls and came around from Iron Lake to Crooked. Ryan advised a straight shot into Crooked to get close to the falls and judge my travel speed, rather than committing to the full length of the Beartrap River into Iron.

A couple days later I decided to call up the folks at Wintergreen Dogsled Lodge to see if someone would be willing to take a few minutes to help me with route details. I was fortunate to have Paulk Shurke answer the phone and he graciously talked me through a number of questions that I had about the route. He also made a suggestion that got me thinking about expanding my loop a bit to take in the west end of Lac La Croix.

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Tobaggan packed and ready to go. Angleworm parking area.

My ambitions for a big winter loop were tempered by concerns about the weather. I had planned my trip for the last week of February, hoping to avoid deep winter cold, but knowing that if I waited into March I would run the risk of conditions that were too warm for efficient travel. The first couple weeks of February was cold, but mid-month the weather turned weird.

It should have been cold in northern Minnesota, but it wasn’t. Instead of stable, cold conditions in the middle of the country, the East Coast was getting a blast of frigid air and the middle of the country was unseasonably warm. The week before my trip I watched the long term forecasts with growing concern as the projected daytime highs climbed from the upper 20s well into the 30s. It didn’t look good.

Warm weather or not, I wasn’t going to cancel. It had been over a decade since my last real winter trip and I was determined to get out into the woods this year. Waiting wasn’t an option either—if it was too warm to travel in February I could only imagine how warm they would be later in March.

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8 inches of fresh snow on the trail made the going slow.

Day One
On the morning of Saturday the 25th I was up early at my hotel in Babbit. It snowed overnight—a total of 8 inches, adding to the nearly two feet that had fallen the previous week. I packed my truck and started toward Ely at first light, creeping along an unplowed Hwy 21, trusting in snow tires and rear wheel drive.

The Echo Trail was plowed most of the way to Angleworm. The parking lot at the entry point was snow covered but passable. I loaded out my 10 foot flexible plastic toboggan with a week’s worth of gear including a hot tent and deep winter sleeping bag. In a few minutes everything was lashed in place and ready to go.

Temperatures were in the upper 20s, but the forecast had worsened over the past several days. I was anticipating temperatures up into the lower 40s on a couple of my travel days. With this in mind I was determined to make as many miles as possible on this first day. My goal was Home Lake at a minimum by the end of the day, and farther if I found a packed trail from Home to Gull.

The Angleworm Portage is a long one—716 rods on my MacKenzie map–this tends to keep summer traffic to a minimum. Most people don’t want to crank out a two-mile hike with a canoe before they get to the water.

I wasn’t sure what to expect in winter.

I started down the portage through a forest heavy with new fallen snow, following a snowshoe track that looked to be a day or two old. Snow clung to trees in masses and dropped from low branches as I passed by. The portage started with a long, gradual descent before dropping down sharply toward the first of two wetlands that it crossed on the way to the lake. The first of these ends in a sharp climb to the northeast. That climb was the first real challenge of the day and a taste of what was in store for the rest of the trip.

My choice of winter kit has been strongly influenced by the writings of Garret and Alexandra Connover. Their excellent book, A Snow Walker’s Companion, outlines the traditional winter skills and equipment that the Connovers use guiding winter trips in Maine and Canada. A Snow Walker’s Companion helped introduce me to the three pieces of winter gear that I now use for all lake-country trips: a long, flexible toboggan, a heated tent with a wood stove, and wide traditional snowshoes.

The Connovers take an extremely traditional approach to winter travel, advocating for wool and cotton fabrics over synthetics and using cotton tents with airtight welded stoves. I’ve experimented with many of their suggestions over the last 25 years and have come to something of a compromise between the old and the new.

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Rocky shoreline of Angleworm Lake.

My tent is the biggest departure from the traditional style. Almost 20 years ago a friend and I went in on a Kifaru Tipi together, and I’ve used this tent almost exclusively for winter trips ever since. The tipi is made of coated nylon instead of cotton canvas, which makes it both lighter and easier to pack after a rain or ice storm. The Kifaru stove is collapsible and packs down small enough to carry strapped to a backpack. My older stove is quite a bit more bulky than the newest versions, but it’s still light enough to be hauled on a toboggan by a solo camper.

[My review of the new Kifaru box stove is here.]

I’ve found that I can haul more weight on a traditional trekking toboggan than I can on a shorter pulk sled, and both are more comfortable than hauling gear in a backpack. The toboggan doesn’t maneuver as easily in the woods as a pulk, but it has a low center of gravity that pulls smoothly over lakes. Hills, on the other hand, are a challenge. Unlike a pulk sled with rigid guide poles, my toboggan is pulled on two long rope traces connected to a wide webbing pull strap. On downhills you need to decide if you’ll be able to stay ahead of the sled as it picks up speed. Long traces help, but on steep hills it’s better to get behind the sled and use the long traces to steer it downhill.

Of course, if you need to maneuver around your sled from front to back in hilly terrain it helps to have snowshoes that float well in deep, loose snow. For this I prefer traditional Maine or Michigan style shoes. Mine are 14×42 inches, and if I were buying them today I would go even bigger. The large shoes aren’t awkward once you get used to them, and they offer substantially more float than the narrow aluminum shoes that are popular today.

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Traditional Maine snowshoes secured with the Indian Hitch. A lampwick binding that gave me no end of trouble the first day.

One thing that modern shoes have that offers an edge over traditional shoes is crampons. My shoes don’t have these metal teeth underfoot, and as I got into the first steep uphill on the portage I started to slip and slide. After a few futile minutes trying to grunt the toboggan uphill by brute force I settled on a system that worked well for the rest of the trip. The traces on my toboggan were long enough that I could take five or six steps before I came to the end of the rope. On steep uphills I would walk those 6 steps, give a couple stout pulls on the traces to bring the toboggan to my heels, and then pay out line as I walked forward again. This technique was strenuous but much more effective than spinning my wheels on the steep stuff.

And steep stuff there was. The last time I portaged the Angleworm was back in 2004 on a summer trip. I didn’t remember it being this steep. Especially the second half where the trail climbed over the steep divide between Spring Creek and Angleworm. It was brutal. By the time I slid down the last hill and out into the south end of Angleworm Lake I was ready for a change of pace.

The expanse of Angleworm stretched out to the north under an overcast sky.  A few flurries drifted down as I bent into the harness and started down the lake. At first, I was able to keep to the snowshoe track that I’d followed on the portage and I made good time. When I reached a pair of islands a mile up the lake the track broke off to the right and into a large bay. Now the going was slower. I was breaking trail though eight inches of fresh snow, drifted in places to a foot or more. The sled dragged behind me and my legs burned.

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Grinding it out. North end of Angleworm.

Big tasks are best broken into small chunks, and I set to work chewing through the two miles of lake that stood between me and the portage. I would take a hundred steps and then pause for 10 breaths to recover my wind. Sometimes the pace would drop to 50 or even 25 steps as I broke through deeper drifts. By 1:30 I reached the head of the lake. I was averaging one mile per hour.

I had to pick up the pace.

Angleworm drains into Home Lake through a shallow, rocky stream that is portaged on the right.  The moving water at the head of the lake is a tricky spot. My friend Krome dropped through the snow here on my last winter trip to Angleworm, so I was careful to skirt the edge of the stream to make sure I wouldn’t do the same.

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North end of Angleworm near the portage to Home Lake.

Not careful enough. Just as I was about to step onto the portage trail, my left snowshoe angled out and dropped into a deep hole. My snowshoe was stuck fast. Without thinking, I plunged a mittened hand down into the snow to pull my snowshoe free. My left hand was instantly soaked in icy water. I worked the now wet hand around under the firm snow until I was able to free my foot from the snowshoe binding and pull both snowshoe and boot to the surface.

The air temperature wasn’t terribly cold—maybe 25 degrees—so I wasn’t too worried about my wet mitten. I would make camp on the other side of the Home Lake portage and fire up the stove to dry out. I shook off my mittens, put on a pair of Power Stretch liner gloves and started breaking trail across the 65 rod portage to Home.

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A cold, wet misstep.

My feet were dry. The warm temperatures prompted me to trade out my mukluks for 12 inch high Tingley rubber barn galoshes. Warm weather makes for wet snow that soaks the canvas and moosehide of traditional mukluks. By sliding my wool felt liners into rubber overboots I could keep my insulated boots dry from the outside. I would need to dry the sweat out of them by the stove overnight, so I carried a second pair of wool liners. That way I could swap out a damp pair for a dry pair each morning.

The portage to Home was untracked and blocked by downed trees. I worked over and under three trees to pack a trail and then returned for my sled. By 3:30 I had hauled my gear into Home and set up my tent in a bay not far from the portage.

That night in my tent I reflected on the day. Everything was more difficult than expected. The Angleworm portage was a challenge with the toboggan, and travel on Angleworm Lake was far more strenuous that it had been on my last visit. The deep snow and downed trees on the Home portage had me worried the long portage into Gull Lake. This was my most favorable travel day. I pushed myself hard. And I made only six miles.

I was feeling ragged.

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Drying soaked mitts near the wood stove. Frozen beef for dinner on to thaw. This is an older version of the Kifaru collapsible stove.
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Early morning. Home Lake.

Day Two
The next morning dawned clear and mild. The thermometer read 20 degrees. My first task of the day was to change out the bindings on my snowshoes. The day before I experimented with a traditional snowshoe binding called the Indian Hitch. This simple binding is tied from a five-foot length of cotton lampwick. It allows you to get into and out of your snowshoes without using your hands or tying any knots.

The Indian Hitch is intended for use with leather mukluks, and it was a disaster with rubber boots. All through my first day of travel I found my shoes unintentionally disconnected from my feet and flopping around on the trail. Now I changed-out these traditional bindings for the pair of neoprene Iverson A bindings that I packed just in case. With my boots firmly secured to my snowshoes I started off across Home Lake to explore the portage to Gull.

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Brilliant sunshine and crisp snow conditions on the morning of day 2.

The snow on Home Lake was crisp, with a thin breakable crust on top. I flicked my snowshoes forward, enjoying the easy travel conditions and a light day pack. I left my tent set so I could break trail earlier in the morning before conditions warmed too much. I would break camp later in the day after the hard work of scouting the portage was complete.

The portage from Home to Gull is at the northeast corner of the lake and begins with a steep climb. Snow in the woods was three feet deep or more, and even with my big snowshoes I was plunging up to my knees. Every step was an effort. The shoes grabbed snow as I lifted my feet and my adductor muscles raged.

I settled into a mountaineer’s step, pausing slightly with each step on a locked knee to give my muscles a break. The steep trail and deep snow had my heartrate pegged, so I set into a rhythm of motion to conserve energy. I took ten steps at a time, pausing to rest for 10 breaths in between, and went to work grinding out the 270 rods to Gull Lake.

The portage crests about a half mile into the woods before dropping down and beginning a final climb over a hill to Gull Lake. It was 10:30 by the time I cleared the final stretch of woods and flopped down on the low bluff overlooking the lake for a break. The portage took hour and a half to scout. It would take a little under an hour to retrace my steps. By the time I made it back to my camp on Home Lake it was a just after noon. My legs were shot. As I sat down to eat lunch and re-hydrate I wondered if I should try to make it to Gull Lake today after all.

DSC_0078I was breaking trail at about 3 rods per minute. My return trip to Home was about twice that fast. I reckoned that it would take me about an hour-and-a-half to pull the sled across the portage. Add to that a half hour to cross Home and a half hour or more to get across Gull Lake toward the next portage. So two-and-a-half hours of travel left after breaking camp and packing the sled. Sunset was at 430. If I pressed on now I would be setting camp right the end of the day, maybe after dark.

On the other hand, if I stayed at Home Lake I was setting myself up for a repeat of my last winter trip.

I knew by now that there was no way I was going to make Curtain Falls, but I also knew that I wanted to spend a full week on the trail. If I didn’t push on to Gull Lake now I wouldn’t make it into the Beartrap River or down toward Sunday Lake.

A half hour of rest and a belly full of cheese and sausage strengthened my resolve. I was going for it. I struck camp as quickly as I could, spread fresh snow to conceal my campsite, and started off across the lake following my previous tracks.

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It didn’t take long for the critters to take advantage of my packed snowshoe trail.

A dozen steps later I came up short. Running right down the middle of my snowshoe trail was a set of canine tracks. Wolf tracks? Small for a wolf. They hadn’t been there on my return trip. So, sometime over the past hour while I had been packing up my camp, a wolf or coyote had walked right past me and headed on down the lake. I had expected animals to take advantage of my trail, but I didn’t expect it to happen that quickly!

On the trip back across the portage I saw other animal tracks and wished that I’d brought a good guide book along with me. Hauling the sled was tough, but not as tough as breaking trail had been. An hour-and-a-half later I was stomping out a tent platform on the ice near the north end of Gull Lake. As the snow firmed-up I hiked over to the portage into Mud Lake to pack down the trail toward Beartrap.

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Gull Lake.

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Day Three
The sun rose slowly on a cold and foggy morning. I slid my feet into frozen boots and stomped outside to try for some photographs. The past several days of sweaty feet had gotten ahead of my wood stove and both my sets of liners were frozen stiff. It looked like I would have cold feet for the remainder of the trip.

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Checking the map and making a plan.

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The morning was a lay-in with a huge breakfast and cup after cup of coffee. I explored the area around my tent site and found multiple tracks in the deep snow. I could identify a snowshoe hare and maybe a bobcat among the tracks and took a few quick pictures in hopes of identifying the tracks once I had the chance to look at a guide book.

My casual morning led to a late start across the portage trail to Mud Lake. It took me a while to locate the portage from Mud into Thunder Lake. I tracked back-and-forth along the northern edge of the lake trying to pick up the trail. My map showed it right where I was walking but I just couldn’t find the landing. I imagined that a downed tree and the heavy snow might be obscuring the southern end of the trail. After a half hour of searching I decided to climb up into the woods between the two lakes and cut down the ridgeline until I hit the portage.

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I missed quite a party overnight.

I did eventually hit the trail. It was wide and clear and had seen animal traffic but no snowshoes or skis since the previous snowfall. I hiked over the rise and down toward Thunder Lake through knee-deep snow. The packed game trail down the center of the trail made for tricky footing in my snowshoes. With each step they sliced off the firm center of the trail into the looser snow at the edges. Thankfully I had gravity on my side and a light load on my back rather than an uphill grind with the sled.

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The portage from Mud to Thunder Lake. Deep snow. Tough going.

Thunder Lake was brilliant in the mid-morning sunshine. I walked north past a nice campsite and up into the north west bay of the lake where it drains into Beartrap. Here I found a swift moving stream and open water. Across the stream I could see an area that had been packed down by animals coming to drink. I sat out on the edge of Beartrap Lake and looked to the West toward the loop that I wouldn’t complete and ate a quick lunch.

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Well used watering hole between Thunder and Beartrap Lakes.
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Beartrap Lake looking west.

The temperature was climbing into the 40s and the snow was warming and sticking to my snowshoes in giant clumps. The rawhide of my snowshoes was wet and the damp snow stuck to the shoes with each step. Every few paces I had to beat my shoes together in a futile attempt to keep a snowball from forming under the instep of my foot.

Warmer weather was forecast for the rest of the week and there was no way that I would be able to travel under these conditions. My only option would be to pack up and walk at night when temperatures were lower and the snow was firmer. That might have been an option if I had to stick to a schedule, but I was setting my own pace on this trip, and I decided to slow it down.

On my walk back to Gull Lake I slogged across the Mud Lake portage, wading knee-deep in the footprints I had left on the way over. The portage dropped down toward Mud and opened onto the lake at an obvious landing that I would have seen had I pressed on a little bit farther down the shore. I suppose there is a lesson in that—if you haven’t found the trail yet, press on.

This trip was teaching me lessons. Lessons in patience. Lessons in listening. I started with an ambitious travel plan, but after three days of silence in the Boundary Waters my priorities shifted.

Instead of making miles on a rigid timeline I would settle in to the stillness of the winter landscape. I would embrace both the physical grind of travel in tough snow conditions and the quiet of isolation. The week would be an exercise in spirit rather than distance; of process rather than goals.

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Melting snow on the Whisperlite International. You’ll find a comprehensive review of the International here.

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Day 4
I woke early the next morning to the feeling of snowflakes falling on my face. A gentle breeze was rustling the walls of my tent and shaking loose the frost that formed overnight. It was colder than I expected and my bottle of contact solution had frozen into a slushy glob. I would be wearing glasses for the rest of the trip.

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That morning I set about looking after my equipment. I dried the residual moisture out of my sleeping bag by the wood stove and set the bag out in the sun. Next, I reworked the parachute cords on my toboggan so that the load would be more secure for the trip back to Home Lake. I planned to camp on the north end of Angleworm that night and since I would be retracing my route on packed trails I wasn’t in a rush.

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Drying gear in the sun.
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Another nocturnal visitor.
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Packed, lashed tight and ready for the portage trail.

By late morning I packed up my camp, scattered snow over the site to conceal its presence, and headed back across the lake toward the portage. The sled pulled easily over firm snow and I settled into the traces. To the west, beyond the portage, a raven called. Then another closer by. They closed the distance between the two lakes in moments, occasionally speaking in low tones. It would take me an hour-and-a-half to cover that distance on straining legs. For the ravens, sailing on glossy wings, it was effortless.

My fourth trip across the Home-Gull portage went smoothly. By now I was accustomed to hauling the toboggan up steep inclines, and my previous trips had consolidated the snow into a firm, slick surface. The air was cooler in the woods than it had been out on the open lake and the snow was colder, so my snowshoes weren’t packing with snow underfoot.

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Hauling uphill on the Gull-Home portage.

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The toboggan followed smoothly in the well worn track.

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Hauling hands.

I broke out of the woods onto Home Lake in brilliant sunshine. Temperatures were rising into the 30s but the snow on the lake was still firm and the sled pulled easily. The portage back into Angleworm went quickly, despite the downed trees, and by 2 PM I was hunting for a spot to pitch my tent.

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Headed down hill on the Home-Angleworm portage.

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Moose.
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My snowshoe trail became a wildlife highway.

I decided to explore the northern most designated campsite on Angleworm in hopes of finding the latrine. Backcountry toilets at designated sites can be difficult to find under several feet of snow, so the Forest Service prefers visitors to camp elsewhere in winter. This reduces the chance that winter waste will show up the following spring, fouling a site.

As luck would have it I was able to find the “slammer” at this site quickly, so I was confident that my camp wouldn’t produce a negative impact. I set to work digging out the fireplace. Across the channel to the north a spruce swamp provided ample dead and downed wood for a fire. Tonight I would fully dry my boot liners and enjoy warm feet for the first time in several days.

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The northern most site on Angleworm sits on a slight rise above the lake.
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Some serious digging unearthed the fire grate and the pit toilet.
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A spruce swamp across the channel supplied ample firewood.

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Day 5
I spent the previous evening reading, drying my boots and drinking hot chocolate in front of the fire. This morning I woke at 4:30 to the sound of a barred owl calling off to the southeast.  My plan was to move camp to the south end of Angleworm today but last night decided to explore the area north of Home Lake instead. My friend Ryan told me that, years ago, he tried to take a dogsled group from the Outward Bound school down Home Creek to Beartrap Lake. At that time, the wetland north of the lake had been a jumble of blown down spruce that was impassible with sleds and dogs. Ryan explored on snowshoes far enough to rule out a “crash” through the area. He also told me that he found the remains of a wolf kill and dozens of tracks. I set off across the portage, looking forward to exploring some new ground for the first time in several days.

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Breakfast scramble with bacon and kale.

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As I crested the height of land I could hear, not for the first time, what sounded like quiet voices far off. Whispers in the trees. The stillness of this landscape in winter is so complete that you begin to hear the smallest of things. At times the quiet seems like a throbbing in your ears. You can hear your heartbeat, the crunching of snow underfoot, the sound of tree trunks rubbing together in the wind. They sound like voices, or coyote songs in the distance. When the wind doesn’t blow and the ravens have stopped calling the silence is almost deafening.

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Home Creek drops down out of Home Lake into a broad wetland.

Home Creek drains out of the northwest corner of Home Lake toward a narrow gorge before it drops into the western end of Beartrap Lake. I knew I wouldn’t make the full trip to Beartrap. The sun was already high and temperatures were warming into the thirties. I had until noon or so to explore before I had to turn for home to avoid slushy snow conditions on my return trip.

The creek dropped through a shallow riffle into a meadow that disappeared around a bend to the north. Snow in the woods was knee-deep and going was slow, but there was little evidence of the blowdown that Ryan had described. Otter tracks and slides crisscrossed along and over the creek. Around the bend the creek went over a second shallow area. I carefully picked my way along suspicious ice before coming into a broad opening that looked well off to the north. Here the creek widened into a small lake. A set of moose tracks crossed the lake from the west, disappearing into the spruce swamp on the eastern shore. In the distance a huge beaver lodge stood out from the edge of the swamp. No sign of wolves.

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Otter and mink sign were everywhere.

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Beaver Lodge Home Creek

I followed a set of otter tracks along the shoreline before cutting across open ice toward the lodge. The snow was warming, so I didn’t linger long before retracing my steps back to the south. As I rounded the bend back into the upper creek I caught sight of a small brown animal popping its head above the snow. A mink. He started toward me and I stood still, wondering how close he might come. The mink glided across the snow, sliding on his belly six feet at a time, stopping each time to pop his head up and look around. He slid directly toward me and stopped about 10 feet away to give me a good looking-over. Satisfied that I was nothing important, he turned away and slid off into the woods.

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Snow was balling under foot as I made my final trip across the portage toward Angleworm. The temperature was approaching 50 degrees. Back at camp, the snow in the fireplace area had completely melted. The ground was dry and warm, covered in white pine needles. I sat on my RidgeRest pad, barefoot, drinking coffee and soaking up the sun.

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Day 6
My final day on the trail dawned humid and overcast. The thermometer on my compass read 18 degrees. A spectacular coating of hoarfrost covered the forest, refracting the first rays of the sun as it broke the horizon. Across the channel a black backed woodpecker worked methodically up and around a dead spruce. My camp seemed surrounded by woodpeckers of all kinds, calling and hammering away in the still morning air.

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Frozen Boots

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I was unsure of trail conditions and hoped to reach the trailhead by early afternoon, so I broke camp quickly. By 8:30 I slid the toboggan down the hill at the edge of the campsite and onto the frozen surface of Angleworm. There on the packed surface of my snowshoe trail was a single set of large tracks. Wolf. Sometime in the night a wolf passed a few feet from my camp on his way down the lake.

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Wolf.

For the next hour I followed the wolf’s prints down the trail that I broke a week before. A mile down the trail a set of moose tracks crossed the lake from the west and disappeared up into the swamp. The wolf tracks continued south, breaking from the trail in places to wander up toward the edge of the lake, then returning to the firm snow of the toboggan float. Halfway down the lake our paths diverged. The wolf tracks traveled around a point of land and up into a large bay on the east side of the lake. I carried on toward the south, and it struck me that the tracks of predators travel the length of the lakes, while those of prey cross the open ice quickly from one side to the other. The seeker and the sought.

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Following wolf tracks south on Angleworm.

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This wetland on the Angleworm portage marks the halfway point.

Near the portage I started to see my first signs of other travelers in the woods. A lone set of snowshoe tracks come down off the west shore of the lake and out onto the ice. Dog tracks begin to multiply. More snowshoe tracks. I started into the woods at the portage following a well-worn trail. The previous week’s warm weather had melted the snow from the trees and consolidated the snow surface, and my travel skills with the toboggan had improved, so I was making good time. By 12:30 I reached the wetland that marks the midpoint of the trail and began the long uphill grind to the parking area. An hour later I crested the berm of snow at the edge of the lot and dragged my toboggan onto the gravel.

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The trip was at an end. I hadn’t completed the loop that I planned, but I wasn’t disappointed. Instead I was overcome with a feeling of joy and gratitude. Over the course of the week I settled into the silence of the landscape and into a rhythm of travel and simple living that was centering and restorative. This had been my longest solo trip and my longest time on the trail in winter, but neither of these milestones were at the center of my thoughts.

Instead, I thought about silence.

In the modern world we’re bombarded with information from our phones and screens. Our lives are filled with stimulation. With noise. We’re all addicted to the stuff. To the noise.

It’s hard to break away. My week on the trail was a rare chance. A trip alone in the winter is quiet. Quieter than a summer trip. Quieter than a trip with friends. This trip was the first time that I ever experience the vast quiet of being truly alone in the woods.

I packed my gear and wondered when I would hear that quiet again.

Then I sat in my truck, turned the key, and started back toward Ely.

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