Monday, February 20, 2012

Part of the 1%...of visitors to the BWCA that go in the winter

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) is part of the Superior National Forest, a delightfully wooded area of Northern Minnesota.  It's over one million acres (the BWCA, not the forest - that's much bigger) of lakes and forests in which no motors are allowed: no motorboats, no snowmobiles, nothing.  Over 250,000 people visit every year - mostly Minnesotans - but only 1% of those visitors go in the winter.  This year, I became one of the 1%.

I went with a group from Wilderness Inquiry, which is a non-profit organization that arranges wilderness trips for people of all abilities.  This is the second trip I've been on with them - the first was a 5-day kayak trip in the Apostle Islands in 2008.  I really like their philosophy of inclusion.

My friends Mandy and Mark were driving themselves from their home in Southern Minnesota, and since I live just a few blocks off of Highway 61 they picked me up.  It was about 2.5 hours from my place to Menogyn Lodge, where we were to spend the next three and a half days.  It began to snow on the last dirt road into the wilderness.  All of the participants got there around the same time (those who drove themselves and those who took the big van from the Twin Cities).  We said hello, got out our snowshoes/skis, put our packs on our backs (or put them into sleds to pull) and set off 1.5 miles in the snow across the lake to the camp.  Some folks stayed in the lodge (those who could not easily stay in the cabin and deal with the outhouses), the rest of us were divided up by gender and got settled into our bunks.  Poor Mandy and Mark (who are married) had to spend the weekend with a wall between them.

We relaxed around the lodge for the night, and the next morning we were up bright and early to work with the sled dogs!

Goofing around with the dogsled, dogs hardly amused
The dogs live outside (they apparently like it, although I imagined that Thunderdog would be terribly put out if I did not let her sleep on the bed with me, or even the couch!), and they were a lot smaller than I thought they would be.  They looked to be about 35-40 pounds of Dog, and only a few of them looked like "traditional" sled dogs.  As you can see in the picture on the left, the dogs went from white and curly haired all the way to black and wiry, and everything in between.

We learned how to hitch them up, and got them onto their sleds.  They really wanted to RUN!  The first time out the dogsled guides did the driving and the participants sat in the sled.  I was glad to go for a ride the first time out: the woods are amazing.  The surrounding forest was one of the few in the US that had never been logged, so there were huge stands of virgin pines.  Awesome to look at - especially zipping along in a sled.

It was a lifelong dream to do this!  I am so thrilled that I got the opportunity to ride - but even better, we stopped halfway through the trip we switched spots and I got to drive.  I had to stand on the narrow footing in the back, and use the two brakes: one was a big flat brake that I used to slow the dogs down, and there was also a big "emergency brake" that I used to keep them in place once we stopped. There was also an "anchor" that was essentially used as a parking break.  The dogs didn't enjoy just standing around, especially when other dogs are running.  I was scared but I did it!

That afternoon we decided to go for a snowshoe hike.  We went up the Caribou Rock Trail, a well-known summer hiking trail.  It's hard to gauge how far we went: we snowshoed across a lake, and then we went off-trail to get to the summit.  It took about 2.5 hours round trip, but it was SO very worth it:
Snowshoeing across Bearskin Lake

Here we are hiking across the lake.  Some of the group decided against snowshoes...they regretted it when we got to the portage!  The walk across the lake was cold and windy (I was glad that I had a gaiter to keep my face somewhat covered).  TheI used my snowshoes with my Sorels for the first time (I used my regular old hiking boots the one other time I used the snowshoes).n we had to climb up a steep hill (off the main portage), over a ridge, and then were were there: a wonderful view as reward for our hard work.

It was a real person personal challenge for me.  Although there's no way of knowing for sure, I feel confident that, two months ago, I could not have made the trip.  Eating right to lose extra poundage and exercising to improve my strength and cardio must have been a great help.  I felt proud and strong!

Later that evening some of us walked out onto the lake to do some stargazing.  It was clear out, so we had a great view of the heavens.  What amazes me the most about the stars and planets is that, in real darkness, you can not only see MORE of them, but you can see that they have different colors.  For example, Orion: Betelgeuse (the upper left star, his "shoulder") is red and Rigel (the lower right star, his "foot") is blue-white.  We also saw Mars on the horizon: it actually looked like a red disc.  It was amazing.

After a while it was just two of us on the ice - laying about 10 feet apart, looking at the sky.  I heard a strange sound: it sounded like an irregular thumping bass...thump...thumpthump...thump....thump.  I asked my fellow stargazer, "Did you hear that?" in a whisper.  "Yeah," she whispered back.  Then CRACK!!!!  There was a loud cracking sound.  Let me tell you, we were up and running in less than a second.  I grabbed my lantern and we got back to shore without even saying anything!  But once we were back, we were laughing, almost crying, and talking about how the crack was probably just ice shifting beneath the surface and that we were so silly.  I tell you, though - any logical person would take notice if they heard a cracking sound while they were on a frozen lake.

I'll write up my review of Saturday later.  Too much for one post.

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