Trip Notes: Jan 6-7, 2018
One of my personal goals upon moving to Ely was to check off as many new species of fish as possible. As I write this almost one year after my brook trout trip, I am excited to announce that I crossed off (spoiler) brook trout, splake (cross between a brook trout and a lake trout), redhorse and lake whitefish. Naturally, I was thrilled to hear that our fabulous Minnesota DNR has been stocking stream trout in Northern Minnesota lakes for decades. There are a few places in Minnesota where stream trout (Brook, Rainbow, Splake, Brown) have occurred naturally in the past. In an effort to encourage more anglers to enjoy these fantastic sport fish (which also go great in the frying pan), they have stocked area lakes that have the appropriate habitat to support these species-usually small, deep, clear lakes with ample forage for the population to sustain themselves. For those of you who would like to plan your next trip around chasing one of these species, see the DNR’s website for a full list of stocked trout lakes and the corresponding regulations here: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/fishing/trout_lakes/list.html
In the interest of protecting these limited fish – and not to mention the trust of the many locals I consulted while planning my trip – I can not divulge the name of the lake in this post. In the interest of helping serious anglers who are interested in learning more about how to target these fish, I am happy to provide any and all information to interested parties who reach out to me directly.
I was able to rent a Snowtrekker EXP Shortwall tent https://www.snowtrekkertents.com/, compact wood-burning stove, a ski-pulk Expedition Pulk https://www.skipulk.com/product/expedition-pulk/ and Altai Hok skis https://us-store.altaiskis.com/product/hok-ski-updated-2016/ from Piragis for my trip. I have done winter camping trips in three and four-season tents in the past, but since I would be winter camping solo and bringing my 9-month-old Australian Shepard puppy Wendell, I felt having a bombproof heated shelter was a must for this trip – if not for comfort, for safety.
Hours before the sun was set to rise, I left my house hoping to get an early start to maximize my time spent fishing on this short 2-day weekend window. I couldn’t have been more excited to venture out with my new adventure buddy and hopefully cross a new species of fish off my list. I only had a 1.5 mile trek to get to my targeted lake. “Surely in a worst-case scenario that would take me 2 hours and I would be fishing by noon after setting up camp,” I naively told myself. I was quickly jolted back to the sobering reality of the difficulty of winter travel in the north country when I buried my Subaru Forester on the final 1.5 mile stretch of unmaintained gravel road to my BWCAW entry point.
Normally, my Subaru has the traction, horsepower and is light enough to get out of sticky situations like these with ease. Unfortunately, I found out quickly that the Subaru needs new tires with more tread, plastic scoop shovels are garbage-aluminum or bust, and it is nearly impossible to get a vehicle unstuck if you do not have someone who can help push to give you the extra momentum you need to make it out of the rut you have dug for yourself.
Over two hours later, dripping in sweat, exhausted, frustrated and demoralized from the ordeal, I finally had the Subaru in a safe spot and was packed up and ready to venture out. My 1.5 mile hike to my end destination had now doubled, so I was moving as quickly as I could to make up for lost time. I was thrilled and a bit bummed when I made it to the entry point-someone had already blazed a trail – which would make my life easier – but also meant I likely wouldn’t be the first to fish this remote lake, apparently full of Brook Trout, some of which were supposed to be true trophies for this area. I still remember swelling with pride and congratulating Wendell when we crossed into the BWCAW. “Wahoo, Wendell! Your first of many trips into the Boundary Waters!” After a few face-kisses and ear scritches we were winding our way across a short 1/3 mile stretch of river covered in snow from our recent dumping the day after Christmas.
The hike across the lake was a breeze. It was a brisk 15 degrees so the slush had frozen and the tracks I was following were solid-this also kept my body temperature low which prevented overheating and the need to stop and rest. I covered another mile in about 15-20 minutes, gliding along the frozen lake in my Hok skis pulling my 100+ pound pulk sled that seemed virtually empty; I now felt invincible. That feeling would not last.
The next section I needed to traverse was a summer portage along a small river on the way to another popular BWCAW lake. When the portage ended at a wider part of the river, I was forced to cross the river and hike along the other side for a short distance. I shortly came upon an obvious wolf kill-a haunting scene. All around me were dozens of tracks in the blood-covered snow and the remains of a deer-the only remaining evidence being a long spinal column and one ankle and hoof. I suddenly felt alone and an overwhelming sense of responsibility to keep Wendell safe. He could sense the danger, too. He has never encountered a wolf, but by scent he could immediately tell this was not one of his neighborhood doggy friends who left such a scene. I made sure my fixed blade knife was readily accessible and armed myself with the ski poles I had brought for the Hok skis (as if I could have done anything to prevent a wolf attack if they chose to confront us).
About halfway up the river, another portage spur trail went straight up hill into thick brush. I now felt lucky that someone had traveled this way before me – because I am not sure I would have been able to find the trail if not for the footprints and sled tracks. At this point, the terrain was too steep and riddled with downed trees to feel safe on the Hok Skis, so I strapped them to the sled and continued on foot. This section of the portage made me feel grateful that I had my Outdoor Research gaiters because I was post-holing into 20+ inches of snow – at times having to lift the sled over downed trees that were too low to slide the pulk under. The final ¼ mile took me over an hour, with Wendell nervously whining at me every time I had to stop to catch my breath. I could tell he was still shaken by the scene of the wolf kill-whining was his way of telling me it was a bad idea to linger and we needed to get moving.
When I finally captured a glimpse of my lake I was thrilled! There was no one on the lake and not a single sign of human life. As I suspected, the tracks on the lake and the up and over portage were from about a week ago – most likely a scouting mission before the trout season to blaze a trail – I had the entire lake to myself! What a fantastic feeling, all this hard work and frustration paying off. Pretty much every single time I have gone winter camping, at some point I have muttered to myself, “I have never worked this hard in my life.” That was true for today, and tomorrow I would be saying the same thing to myself and know that I am telling the truth; more on that later.
I did not have the energy to hike across the lake in search of the best spot to set up camp, so I settled with a little clearing 50 feet into the woods less than 100 yards away from the portage. I had absolutely no information on this lake outside the DNR lake survey and stocking information (https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/lakefind/index.html), so I didn’t think it mattered where I made camp.
After setting up the tent and stove, feeding Wendell, collecting firewood and getting our bedding laid out it was about 3pm, only an hour or so before the sun went down and it would be too cold to fish. Despite being well beyond exhausted, soaking wet and frustrated with myself for so many mishaps, I was too damn stubborn not to go drill some holes with my hand-auger and see if I could somehow be lucky enough to catch a glimpse of one of these beautiful fish.
Of course, even fishing 50 ft from the shore proved to be a nearly impossible task. For those of you who have traveled on frozen lakes in the winter in the Northland, you will be familiar with the frustrating, unforgiveable and unstoppable force that is slush. This is something I never experienced in south-central Minnesota growing up because we almost never saw the volume of snow needed to create such a quagmire. When a large snowfall hits a lake, the weight of the snow pushes the ice down and forces water up through the cracks and fissures around the perimeter of the lake, anywhere a hole is drilled and through the mid-lake pressure ridges that are formed by the expansion of ice being created. Since snow is such a good insulator, it keeps the slush that results from water seepage from freezing, creating invisible booby-traps all over the lake. One such trap had my life flashing before my eyes for the brief second between breaking through the fragile crust and before hitting the solid “safe” ice underneath.
This didn’t just make my life difficult, but also Wendell’s. As a herding dog, he is fiercely loyal and loves nothing more than being by my side. That meant he spent most of the next hour standing in ankle-deep slush, just to investigate what the hell it was I was doing out in the middle of this frozen lake in the middle of nowhere. After much whining, I brought him back to the tent where he curled up on our pile of sleeping bags and went to sleep while I made a fire to keep him warm.
Back out on the ice I went, determined to catch my first Brook Trout. After an hour or so of jigging a small uv spoon tipped with a minnow head and watching my flasher with no sign of fish, it finally happened! I didn’t even mark the fish on my sonar – seeming to come out of nowhere I felt a violent tug on the end of my line. I was only fishing in 12 feet of water, so the brook trout was above the ice before I knew what had happened. As I mentioned earlier, most holes drilled on a slushy lake will immediately overflow with water to relieve the pressure created by the heavy snow. The area surrounding my ice hole acted as a small fish tank about 6” deep as the brook trout spit the hook once I got him topside, swam around for 3-4 seconds searching for an escape and quickly darted back down the hole leaving me wondering if I had imagined all of that commotion, or I had truly just caught my first brook trout.
I didn’t even try to grab the fish; all I could do was stare. I was too mesmerized by its beautiful vibrant red and pink hues, which together with the sunlight reflecting off the snow and the bright, clear water, made the surrounding water and ice glow as if it were radioactive. All I could do was watch in awe as our trout dinner swam away into the darkness. There are very few things I’ve seen more beautiful than the north country covered in a blanket of snow, but this vibrant trout surrounded by the white, brown and green of the surrounding area burned an image in my mind I will never forget.
Normally, a situation such as this would have increased my frustration, exhaustion and left me feeling like I had somehow failed. Maybe it was because I did not have the energy required to raise my blood pressure and heart rate, but I would like to think it was the gorgeous scenery, coupled with my new adventure buddy sleeping soundly in our tent warm and safe and a new fish species under my belt that made my psyche untouchable. I tried to keep fishing after dark, but the approaching snowstorm brought increasing winds and it was starting to snow so I called it a night and headed into the tent to check on Wendell.
The next morning I was up early in hopes of redeeming myself out on the ice. I wanted to make sure I was fishing while I did my morning chores, so I put a tip up out on the ice with a salted minnow suspended about 4 feet off the bottom in 8 feet of water. As I prepared breakfast on this calm morning after the snowstorm, I was surprised to hear the spring on my tip-up flag go off and I rushed out to make sure it wasn’t imagined. Sure enough, there was a beautiful 13” brook trout on the end of my line who had already swallowed the minnow. Normally, I would throw a 13” trout back to grow larger, but I had put too much effort into this trip to go back empty handed. Onto the ice he went, and I reset my tip up and went back to gathering firewood and packing up for my afternoon departure. Over the next 3-4 hours I had a blast catching these small but ferocious trout through the ice on jigging spoons and my tip up when I was back at camp. I think I caught 9 in total, none of which were more than 14”, but all hard-earned.
I did run into another group of fishermen who arrived around 9 A.M. that morning. They must have gotten an early start hiking along the same trail I took to get there the day before. They obviously knew what they were doing, packing much lighter for a quick day trip, coming equipped with an ice saw and portable shelter to catch their limit of trout in what seemed like an hour. We exchanged pleasantries across the ice, but never actually chatted with them until we ran into each other on our way out later that afternoon. I ran into one of the gentlemen in town about a month later and he told me he was out with his nephew fishing for the day. He had fished this lake many times and said he couldn’t believe I was fishing where I was and catching anything. “That area you are fishing is the only area of the lake I’ve never caught trout. It is the deeper swampy section.” Side note: I later found out that brook trout like the shallower and colder water in 3-6’ where there is a transition between gravel/sand/bedrock/boulders, etc., but certainly not muddy swamp bottom.
Packing up camp was a tedious process since Wendell’s lack of opposable thumbs prevented him from being more than an adorable observer. By the time we hit the trail it was about 1 P.M. I again had a false sense of security about my travels home, allowing myself “one last fish,” three or four times, feeling confident there would be no way the hike out would be anywhere near as difficult as the hike in.
Wrong again. Somehow it was worse. Fortunately, the snowstorm that was supposed to dump 5-7 inches of snow only ended up depositing about three. Unfortunately, the storm had brought with it warmer temperatures, so temperatures were hovering around the freezing mark. Instead of hard pack ice I now had soft and slushy snow, and the established trail I had so easily followed the day before all but disappeared with the fresh snow.
To say the Hok skis saved my life would a slight exaggeration, but they proved crucial in mitigating my miserable trek home. The up and over out of my secret brook trout lake was slightly easier on the way out, as I was able to guide the pulk down the steep hill back to the river, instead of hauling it up. However, I failed to pack my sled as meticulously as I had on the way in, and it kept tipping over on me in the deep snow. I must have had to unhook my harness, get out of my skis and upright my sled at least 20 times that second day.
The deep snow created new challenges. The weight of the fresh and extremely heavy new snow had created slush city on the lake returning to my entry point. Instead of 15-20 minutes to traverse the roughly 1-mile long lake, it now took me over 2 hours of an exhausting, tedious and seemingly unending cycle of progress and setback. The old trope, “two steps forward and one step back” took on a whole new meaning for me this day. If the sled wasn’t tipping over and getting stuck in knee deep snow and slush, I was dealing with slush covered skis that increased from the measly advertised weight of 6lbs, to 20+ when covered with snow and slush. As bad as it was, I felt very fortunate I did not have snowshoes on this trek back. The two other fishermen I mentioned earlier spent the entire trek post-holing as if they were not even wearing snowshoes. I caught up to them on the lake, passed them for a brief moment to break trail, until my sled again overturned and I had to stop to recover.
Once I finally crossed the lake, I assumed things would get better. You guessed it, wrong yet again. Now that we had warmer weather, I did not feel confident hiking on the small river and what was certainly thin ice leading to the entry point. I was forced to take the summer portage, which was an up and down granite boulder strewn roller-coaster that meant pulling my now much heavier sled with wet gear up one rock face, only to come crashing down the other side overturning the sled and grinding to a violent hault that took minutes to correct, but more importantly all of my remaining energy and emotional sanity to recover.
One such rock face was impossible for me to climb. It was a 6’ cliff almost straight up that butted up directly to the river, making it nearly impossible to circumvent. I decided that since I didn’t have the strength to pull or push the sled up and over, I needed to test the ice. At this point, the other two fishermen were ahead of me and had encountered the same problem-they were able to skirt around the rock on the ice without breaking through. Of course, my sled was probably close to 100 pounds heavier than theirs, so I almost immediately broke through, plunging into the icy water up to my thighs. With one of my feet wedged under a rock and the heavy sled slowly sinking into the water, I started to panic and tried to clutch at the granite to pull myself out. If it were not for a small balsam sapling that clung to the granite, I might have submerged the entire sled in the river and most likely gone in further myself. After that ordeal, I was defeated and felt like I had no remaining strength to continue on. “Seems like a good place to sit down and cry.”
After a lengthy break, I was able to regain enough strength to soldier on, finish the summer portage along the river, make it to the entry point and hike my way back along the unmaintained road using the packed snowmobile tracks that had been established that morning to my vehicle. We did not get back to the car until about 30 minutes after the sun went down. Wendell and I were glad our ordeal was over and we would get to sleep in our own beds that night. I had never worked that hard in my life…at least until my next winter camping trip.
Things I learned on this camping trip:
- Solo camping is a blast and I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in achieving solitude in the wilderness. I would, however, strongly caution against solo camping in the winter if you are not prepared physically as well as mentally for when things go wrong (because they will). If I had gone with another person, we would have been able to split up the gear and camp chores between two people which would have made the trip much more enjoyable, but more importantly, much safer. Also, I had picked what I thought was going to be an easy route in an effort to maximize my wilderness experience on a short two-day weekend – only three miles round-trip that ended being the most strenuous camping trip I’d ever taken. Always plan for the worst, even if you feel you have a bombproof itinerary and have done the proper research.
- As with all my winter camping trips, unforeseen circumstances had completely altered my perception of what the trip would look like. It is important to remain flexible with your itinerary, not push yourself beyond your limits and remember that while these adventures can be life-changing, you can’t continue to take them if you kill yourself. When s*** hits the fan, just keep putting one foot (or ski) in front of the other.
- While it is always good to be prepared, sometimes the simpler solution (i.e. less gear) is the better one. Lugging along extra gear to “enhance” your experience will often times have the opposite effect. If I had been more careful about the way I packed, I easily could have cut out 25+ lbs of gear, which would have helped me avoid the level of exhaustion I experienced, in turn allowing me to fish longer and focus more on my wilderness experience.
- You can’t gain these new experiences without stepping outside your comfort zone. I made many mistakes on this trip: optimistic expectations about travel, failure to scout my drive to the entry point, and bringing too much gear. None of these mistakes ruined our trip or put me or Wendell in direct danger, and all of them made me a smarter, stronger and better prepared wilderness camper.
- It IS possible to tire out an Australian Shepard. I have never seen Wendell more tired than he was on this trip. He slept in the tent the first night when I was fishing for about 3-4 hours and continued to sleep through the night until we emerged from our tent in the early hours of the morning. I would take him on another winter camping trip later that month and he again crashed around 5pm and didn’t awake until 7am the next morning. For those of you with hyperactive pooches with no end to their energy in sight, take them snowshoeing/skiing/winter camping. I guarantee they will take days to recover…but so will you.
- The most rewarding places to explore are and should be the most difficult to find. There is a stocked rainbow trout lake ¼ mile from my house in Ely. I could have sat out on the ice with the rest of the anglers that weekend and probably caught just as many fish as I did on my “secret” lake. For me, I feel the extra effort almost always leads to a more genuine, intimate and personally impactful wilderness experience. To quote one of my personal heroes and early advocate for protecting our wild spaces, Theodore Roosevelt said it best, “Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty…”