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Boundary Waters named by USA Today as one of the Top Ten Places to Extend the Summer

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Boundary Waters Magazine.com

Winter Sojourn by John Oberholtzer 

Right now a line of tracks is stretching all the way along the border from Grand Portage to Crane Lake. The tracks belong to Dave Freeman, his dog Tundra, and their two toboggans. Dave is taking six weeks to traverse the Border Country. As he travels, he will be updating his website (www.bordercountryadventure.com) for everyone to enjoy. In early February I joined Dave and Tundra for the first nine days of their journey, traveling with them from Grand Portage westward to Gunflint Lake and the Granite River area.

Our trek began on a long white ribbon through the woods. First on the trail of the Grand Portage itself and, later on, along the winding course of the Pigeon River itself. The portage, eight and a half miles long, connects Lake Superior, and the steeper sections of the waterway, to the more sedate mid-section of the Pigeon River. We encountered deep snow as we traveled across the portage trail. At times, the laden balsam and spruce boughs formed an actual canopy over our heads. The snow, coupled with the uphill grade, slowed our progress to only one mile per hour. It was hard work, but we knew we were in good company. Long used as a means to avoid the waterfalls on the lower Pigeon River, the portage is paved with millions of ancient moccasin and modern boot steps. As we gazed up at ancient white pines and cedars, we knew that below their branches many had gone before us with far greater burdens. We felt a sense of community with those former Voyageurs, who often carried two-hundred pound bales of furs, over this trail. And this historical sense carried us up and over the hill to the Pigeon River.

One of Dave's many goals on this trip is to foster, in others, the enthusiasm that he feels while traveling in the North Country. We frequently stopped to photograph a scene, or to simply discuss the woods around us, and to acquire content for his website. At dusk on the first day, we interrupted an owl, which flew away with a heavy burden. Snow is a diligent recorder and soon we were reading the whole story. A grouse had been resting, while burrowed in the snow, when this particular owl came down from the sky like a meteor. Scattered around the burrow, like leaves across the snow, were all that remained of the grouse. Though the evidence reported a gruesome end for the grouse the canvas of snow on which the action unfolded was a beautiful work of art. Brown, black, and gray feathers sprayed out from a central hole where a few drops of blood shone like neon. We had to move on though as our sweat soon chilled in the rapidly dropping temperatures. But, somewhere nearby, an owl filled itself with the warmth of the grouse's life.

The river was solitude itself. On its white road not a single thread of humanity was to be found. It looped quietly back and forth with each turn holding a new delight; a group of stately white pines or inky black spruce trees standing at attention. Travel was slow on the river as deep snow continued to pry at our snowshoes and insulated a layer of slush beneath it. Slush is the bane of the winter traveler. It globs onto your snowshoes, then freezes, each foot then burdened by lead-like weights. Sometimes it would ooze over the tops of our boots, soaking and freezing our feet, resulting in lengthy boot changing delays. It tiles the bottoms of the toboggans, leaving behind little claws dragging through the snow. We avoid it like the plague, moving quickly at its first sign.

Initial steps on slushy snow, with some snow still between the snowshoe and the slush, feels like walking on a waterbed. It is a wonderfully squishy sensation to be enjoyed ever so briefly as sinking into slush is like trying to walk across quicksand. Our slush ritual unfolded frequently on the Pigeon River; removing our snowshoes, knocking them together to loosen the slush, then, flipping the toboggans on their sides to scrape the bottoms like a sailor scrapes barnacles. All the while, Tundra would tend to her slush encrusted paws. This ritual really slowed us down, but it also reminded us to travel the way we liked, at the speed of the country, with time to look around and see the full details of this wilderness spectacle.

Once, after scraping our sleds, we saw moose tracks leading up to a moose-sized hole in the ice. The path of the moose's exit tracks, from this would be grave, was lined with aquatic plants and muck-stained snow. It was a chilling scene and one we should have perhaps studied more closely. Because not more than forty yards further Dave duplicated the stunt of the moose, plunging through the ice up to his shoulders. An agonizing yell yanked me around in time to see Dave go down. He quickly grunted his way back onto the ice and threaded his awkward snowshoes through the hole. Dripping wet he stood, in quiet surprise, in the the cold, cold air. As I helped Dave dig out his dry clothes, I could imagine the moose's struggle; smelling the muck, hearing the groans of exertion, and visualizing the sheets of water pouring off his back and onto the ice. The heft of Dave's wet clothes pulled on my biceps, and I wondered about the weight of a sodden, freezing coat of moose hide. The moose hole, and Dave's plunge, foreshadowed the river to come. Relatively warm water flowing through the dam that forms South Fowl Lake kept the river open over most of its bed. We had to be ever vigilant to stay dry.

After the narrow confines of the river, South Fowl Lake stretched out like an African plain. We switched from our snowshoes to our skis to take advantage of the many firmly packed snowmobile tracks in this particular section. Soon, we were flying along, miles passing easily, the soupy slush and deep snow of the river only distant memories. Our skiis took over, their metronome movement casting a spell on our minds. I would drift miles away in my thoughts, working on future projects or mulling over words someone in my life had once uttered to me. I would snap-to, looking up at all the cliff-lined beauty of these border lakes and those distant thoughts would drift away. They seemed pointless and foolish out there, rather silly compared to the task at hand; really seeing this incredible landscape before us.

The land is robust up here. The energy locked inside these huge red and white pines, and raw exposed granite is palpable. Mountain Lake stretches seven miles from east to west and we rested right out in the middle with the steep south shore looming over our heads. Snow was riding on the breeze that day and melting on our eyelids. The air smelled freshly laundered. Breathing this air, sipping water, and warm from the skiing, I felt completely alive. An elusive feeling, which seems to come when I am deeply enmeshed in a natural process: the wind, the ice, the millions and millions of new snowflakes, the hillsides of growing trees, the decay of the forest floor wafting up, and the tilting sawtooth ridges. I smiled to myself out there on Mountain Lake, inviting the cold to seep in, as I do the rain in the summer. Let me feel them while I can as it is all just a passing moment. I learn from these moments, from being in the wild country, that life continuously ebbs and flows no matter what we do.

During lunch we gobble handfuls of gorp, dried fruit, and beef jerky; the orb of warmth from our exertion dimming with each breath. We ate, at each stop, until the cold penetrated our cores. Then, with numbing fingers, we'd pack up our gear and strike out again. Very soon we'd be warm and I had the thought that this is a good model for my life; don't complain and don't try any shortcuts. Just do what needs to be done at the moment and don't fret over moments passed or ones to come.

At night we'd set up camp in a welcome ritual of chores; packing down the snow for a tent pad, collecting the evening's firewood, chopping a hole for drinking and cooking water, then setting up our tent and collapsible woodstove. It was a wonderful rhythm and I couldn't remember when I'd spent my time so well. Each act was a source of discovery. We carefully considered wood collection strategies and then compared how each type of wood burned in our fire. We wondered about ice and slush formation on lakes as we noted the many layers of ice in our water holes. I would collapse outside the tent each night before going in, trying to clear my mind, listening and looking into the night. In that sweet euphoria of exhaustion the woods seemed radiant and timeless. As, indeed, they are.

We took turns each night tending the fire until morning. We didn't need to, as our sleeping bags were sufficient to ward off any cold, but we were charmed by the warmth and efficiency of our lightweight titanium woodstove. During my watch, I would wake every hour or so, with a bit of cool touching my arm and reminding me to stoke the stove. I thought, once or twice, that this is really silly to keep waking up every hour or two. But then I began to notice something. Each time I woke in a dream, wild and colorful images swirled around in my head, as untamed as the country around me. One night in my sleepy stupor, I felt my dream lift into the stillness, to be carried off on a passing breeze and dissolve into the landscape. It occurred to me one night that I could observe the land through the lens of my dreams. During the day I compared dream images to my surroundings; reddish cedar roots serpentine over ageless granite, the howl of winter winds, the frozen soup at the base of a pitcher plant, a flash of nearly hidden wolf eyes. I thought of the playful otters below in the watery half light; whiskery, twisting, turning, searching for the crayfish with blue tints on their shells. It was stimulating and the thoughts were hard to keep up with; racing ahead of me.

I left Dave after a final day of exploring the Granite River. My earliest experiences of the Border Country had been on this section of the Pine River, and seventeen years later, I found it as beautiful and wild as my memories. Late in the day we were bushwhacking to a point just south of the Devil's Elbow and we were in a stand of stunted black spruce; the type that lives suspended on a boggy mat. I was worn out and needed a lift. I nibbled a few tender black spruce tips, recalling Thoreau's description of spruce beer; "A lumberer's drink, which would acclimate and naturalize a man at once, which would make him see green, and, if he slept, dream that he heard the wind sough among the pines." A pungent flavor covered my tongue. The taste and pace of the country had completely sunk in to me. There was no way to speed up the last few miles. Just a matter of lifting the snowshoes up and down a few thousand more times. So I let my mind and body relax together as the dusk slowly engulfed the day.

Enmeshed in a final alder thicket, branches supporting my weight, I felt an odd sensation. I experienced all of my senses simultaneously. In that moment, it was as if I had always known the place. I was no longer observing it or thinking consciously about it. Modern life's filter had been removed. I held on to that moment as long as I could and remembered, once again, why we all come to the wilderness. We're seeking invitation, to the place where we feel t he world more like the animal inhabitants of these woods, somewhere between the conscious and unconscious, between our cultured and our wild selves. I was happy to find that place again.


(Editor's notes: Dave Freeman is still out there living in the woods. Check him out at www.bordercountryadventure.com. His journal updates and pictures may help you imagine this winter world, inspire you to try some winter camping, and refresh your tie to this incredible land.

Dave and John are both seasoned winter and summer travelers. You should realize that a plunge through the ice, especially over moving water, can be instantly fatal. Be prepared, with ice "picks" hanging around your neck on a cord, to pull yourself out and onto good ice. Have a plan in mind because you'll only have a few minutes to get undressed and into dry clothes. Make sure the waist belt of your pack is unbuckled so you can shed it quickly. You should then begin running or exercising vigorously, in your dry clothes, to get your body warmed up. A sleeping bag will keep you warm but it will not warm you up! So get moving!! You only have a few minutes before the cold makes your brain shut down and you are unable to warm yourself. When you're warmed up come back and deal with your gear properly.)

--article courtesy of BoundaryWatersMagazine.com

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