12 Jan 2020
Trip Plan: Ski pulk to Buzz Ryan Campsites in the Boulder Lake Management Area. Winter camp two nights in the hot tent and explore the area on fat skis.
Date: December 20-22, 2019
Day 1 – Friday, December 20, 2019
My dream had come true. How many hours had I yapped to Kris about winter camping dreams and actual trips I’d planned and executed, gear and wish list items? Kris always talked about getting me this hot tent rig to try. 6 months prior, she told me she got it from her ex-husband. She got it for me! WHAT!? So when winter finally came around in Duluth, with a force, I was very eager to try this setup out. Kris told me she’d come along and help me set it up and enjoy a winter’s night out in the woods. We figured out a date that worked. Luckily we have pretty similar weekend schedules as partners of a weekend-based race timing business!
I was so eager that I asked Kris if I could go out on Friday. She couldn’t go but said she’d find me the next day out at Boulder Lake. After working a half-day on Friday, I packed up as quick as possible, and Diamond and I drove to Kris’s to get the rig and ship up to Boulder Lake 20 minutes outside of town.
Kris gave me the rundown. The entire hot tent rig first consists of a large pulk sled. Very heavy but it obviously slides. The tent itself is canvas plus a wooden center pole. Then the wood stove has four pipe attachments, the stand and a little shelf extension all packed within the stove itself. The door was rusted shut. Skeeter rushed to grab some brand new metal lubricating anti-rust spray he’d just purchased for his bike. Kris quipped about how she’s glad she checked the door! Yep, that would be a challenge if I set up the entire tent, got wood, got my lighter out, and the door is closed tight. Even if it opens, a rusty door would make feeding the stove obviously difficult. So we lubed it up, I got some last minute setup tips, and we roughly coordinated on the meet-up tomorrow. By this point, it was 3pm, and we still had to drive out! The sense of urgency hit me. It would be dark soon.
Off to Boulder, and I wondered what the repercussions may be about parking my van on the side of County Road 4. I’d been thinking of this… to the point of trying to look up Minnesota and Saint Louis County laws and regulations! I couldn’t find anything. Must be legit then. We arrived in a snap, the feeling of darkness looming heavy. I struggled with attaching some last second gear and settled for a somewhat looseleaf configuration within the sled. I neglected to pull up the flap cover, which was a mistake. With the entirety of my gear strapped to the sled (Diamond carried some of her own load), it was extremely cumbersome at best to get the sled out of my van. Yeah, this wouldn’t be possible without a minivan with the seats out! I dragged it down with a thud, focusing on keeping Diamond out of the 60mph roadway, but only had 12 inches to work with on the narrow shoulder. I had driven into the snowbank slightly to create about one inch of clearance from the white line in the road. While tinkering around with the waistbelt I heard a rumble from far away. Moments later, I stood helpless as a massive lumber transporting truck zoomed past. I felt the displacement of air, seemingly wavering in place as the truck roared on. I second guessed my parking spot, but resolved to just folding my mirror in.
I finally got all strapped in: Diamond, pulk sled and all. I was wearing my Altai Hok fat skis and using much-too-short trekking poles. I felt unsteady. Then I realized that the bottom of the pulk sled had something on it. Like a sticky substance of some sort. Sheesh, how would I get this mystery material off? I can’t slide this sled like this? Maybe ice chunks on the bottom. No, none of that make sense!! The sled was just heavy. Unbelievably heavy. I was in denial that I couldn’t muster the strength to make the sled budge. I leaned obnoxiously forward and tried lurching in jerky spurts to get some semblance of momentum. First, barely a nudge, then some sliding, then I was able to keep my momentum up and actually got going!
As dusk settled in, Diamond and I made our way to the Buzz Ryan campsites. I knew it was just less than 2 miles in. The dog and the sled were frustrating. Too much shit attached to myself. I’d get the sled into a rut, Diamond into a tangle. If I lost my momentum it was like an critical failure. Keep the sled sliding under any circumstances! We trucked along and made it to the very first campsite available, the same one that we had been to about 4 weeks earlier. Every new moment seemed to be noticeably darker. It was that point where your eyes kind of change over from light to dark. I could still see, but not many minutes could pass before I’d need to find my lamp. Ok… let’s see how this thing sets up. I figured the wooden pole was for the direct center. I neglected to bring a shovel, which proved to be a huge mistake for the setup phase of the hot tent lifestyle. I tried to pack down snow with my skis, to make a platform. Diamond trounced all over it and ruffled up the snow. Ugh! I swore at her, my booming voice echoing off the shoreline opposite. Hehe, that’s kind of fun. I shook the tent free from its bag. I found the center pole hole and also the door. I felt it a useless endeavor to try and lay out the tent. I’d move one corner and the other side would furl onto itself. I’d stomp over to the other side to unfurl, the back would pull up from its spot. Terrible. I decided to go for the center pole first. Then I found corners. Luckily, they had cord tied to the grommets. There were many, many more untied grommets. But having the four corners tied gave me an idea of the tent’s dimensions. When I got the center piece in I started tying down the corners. It was similar to stringing up my upside-down trekking pole rain tarp. Frustrating but once you get two sides it comes up. It was a challenge to tie down onto far-away trees and shrubberies. I tied one side to a log and buried it in the snow. Then the tent popped right up! I went around and tightened up each corner, readjusted the center and all the sudden I had myself a sturdy shelter. At this point, I had to get my headlamp. I put my brand new tarp down as a floor, brought the wood stove in, and shoved everything else from the shed right in. Immediately, I knew there was too much snow in there. Crap. I started using my arm to move snow from inside to out. The floor soon became bare to the forest floor. That is good, less to melt and turn into water, I thought. With all the snow on my arms I started getting cold. It was not too long before I had my area pretty well set up, though. It seemed like a rushed setup. I can optimize later. Firewood is the next big concern.
In just as much of a rush as the rest of the evening thus far, I got burnable lumber as quick and easily as possible. It was a few armfuls of twigs and sticks, plus a bundle of birch bark. I got a fire going real quick. I had to stoke the fire with new twigs, to the brim, every 20 minutes. My initial wood pile was enough to warm up dinner and keep me warm while I ate. Then I needed to get more wood. I got a similar pile of sticks and twigs, enough to last me until bedtime. Then I’d let the fire go out. I was prepared for the forecasted mid-20’s overnight. It was an ecstatic evening. So this is it! The hot tent setup was so cool. I couldn’t believe I was out here. So awesome. I had ample entertainment just stoking the fire, taking in this new shelter space, and day dreaming up where I could take it. Diamond seemed happy and snug in her new DIY lightweight winter doggy bed.
Day 2 – Saturday, December 21, 2019 (Winter Solstice)
How goofy is it to spend the entire day outside on the winter solstice? The shortest day of the year? In northern Minnesota that day’s not very long! When I finally got up at 7:30 or so it was dawn, kind of similar to when I arrived here last night… no sun, not dark, but light enough to see pretty well. I spotted a crescent moon framed nicely in between some very tall pines. Beautiful! I took a deep breath through my nostrils, my brain flooded with serotonin and knew today would be a great day. Breakfast, then ski all day. The snow conditions were deep, fluffy, beautiful. Even the snowmobile-tracked Buzz Ryan Road back to the van would be nice to scoot along on the fat skis. But before breakfast, me and Dimey took to the lake to get a lay of the land. The first slush reports came back positive. It seemed like rock hard ice underneath a fluffy snowpack. The lake seemed a bit windblown, but still decent snow on top. We made a loop, then back for breakfast. Oatmeal and coffee was delicious. I was excited to go off even further. So I ate quickly, geared up for a longer tour, we zipped up the tent door and started off! Diamond was completely in her element running free in the woods in the snow. I felt a little stiff from the sleep on the ground but loosened up quickly as sunshine and blue sky spread across the landscape. Looking high to the treetops was picturesque. The day was shaping up to be truly incredible with great temperatures and snow conditions. I couldn’t help but smile, even laugh out loud, even hooting and hollering! Where else would we rather be, I shouted to Diamond. She didn’t take the time to respond. Too many sniffs.
Diamond and I headed toward the van parked on the road to try and find some logging road or snowmobile trail or cut in the woods… whatever it is, I’d scoped out many trails totally untracked in this Buzz Ryan area of the Boulder Lake Management Area. And exploring those through feet of snow is a perfect job for the fat skis! We found one after another, all leading in a dead end, but all enjoyable to just take the trail wherever it may lead, enjoy the nearby trees, the sunshine, blue sky and clouds, the soft snow blanketing everything in sight. Wonderful. I checked on the van, not smashed, good. Then we headed back to the tent. I wanted to call Kris to ask when she’d be there, where to meet her, etc… My phone was at 1% battery. CRAP! So I called Kris quick and blurted out my question. She said she’d park around 1pm. OK BYE!! Then I wrapped my phone in my jacket to try and keep it warm and from dying. And we went back out. A few hours of exploring every nook and cranny of Buzz Ryan and we headed back towards the County Road to meet Kris. When we arrived at around 12:45pm, no Kris. No sense waiting around, I thought, she’ll find us eventually. I had to start getting firewood. So we trekked back.
Tonight’s fire pile would be different. I wasn’t messing around this time. No more twigs and sticks. I harnessed into the empty pulk sled and Diamond and I skied out to an area that I’d spotted a lot of leaning dead trees. When we got there, I saw so many valid pieces of quality lumber I couldn’t wait to get to work. Diamond sauntered off into the deep woods and I started pushing, pulling, shaking and tossing tree limbs from the dense woods onto the trail by the sled. Ooo, this was going to be a haul! I paused the collections process to start breaking them into manageable pieces, then into the sled. Eventually I noticed a blonde dog trouncing down the trail. Lacie! Then Skeeter then Kris. They came right to me! Look at that! It was good timing as I had nearly filled up the sled. So I packaged it up and we all headed to the tent. I was embarrassed about my half-assed string-up job in dusk the night before, but it wasn’t so bad after all. Kris was ready to sleep in the woods, but didn’t make a rock solid commitment. And then I showed my friends the area.
We went out onto the lake, then to the furthest west campsite of 5 Buzz Ryan campsites. We tracked the campsite’s trails in entirety, then back to my lumber yard for another haul. It was nice to have helpers, and I filled that sled up to the brim with choice burnables in no time. Back to the tent, I started stacking and Kris seemed more than eager to whip out the saw and start cutting the bigger logs. When Skeeter decided he should probably head out, and Kris had to make a decision, she decided to stay. Easier decision when the wood pile is heaping! Lacie, that barker, left as well. In no time, it was dark again.
The rest of the night was relaxing, enjoyable, and warm. That lumber made the difference, and that tent got HOT! It was so hot, and the hot air kind of clumped towards the top of the tent, that you tried to get as low as possible to avoid the dizzying heat. It had to have been 80 degrees in there! I eventually dozed off, and Kris stoked the fire every hour until morning. I woke up a few times during the refueling process and drearily asked “fire still going?” or something meaningless like that. It was warm overnight.
Day 3 – Sunday, December 22, 2019
Kris and Diamond and I started to stir and pretty much got right to making oatmeal and coffee. I think we both were pretty keen on getting out of the woods without too much dilly-dallying. Diamond seemed to be feeling the whopping 15 mile ski the day before. I was too. I could go another day, but ooof, I was also ready to go home and unpack and take a shower. Drying, cleaning and storing this gear would certainly be a long and difficult process in and of itself. Much more so after another long ski, not to mention the 2 mile pulk out.
We did take another little spin across the lake. The clouds were very low lying… a fog, really. Regardless, it seemed kind of hazy out, kind of humid, mostly cloudy… kind of an interesting morning. Diamond didn’t have her usual peppy puppy energy levels, and I felt a little sluggish for sure. Skiing was more of a chore today than it was a blissful glide yesterday. So before long Kris and I reconvened, packed up our heaping mounds of gear, and tracked back to the cars. The sled pull was much better this time around with the experience and knowledge to utilize the sled cover and pack nicely. We were back to the cars in no time.
What a trip. Close to home, yes. Nothing extreme, no. But the nature was stunning and incredible. The hot tent setup was so cool. Such a game-changer. The skis and snow conditions, being outside all day, moving through nature, fellowship of my faithful dog Diamond and friends Kris and Skeeter gave me the feeling of having my best day ever. I think that Saturday was the best day of my life so far! Ya can’t get better than that.
04 Dec 2018
I think it’s safe to say that winter is here in Duluth, MN and there is no turning back until the very beginning of spring. So, mid- to late-April. There are a few overnight backpacking trips that stick out to me as some of the most enjoyable times spent in the woods, period. It’s so hard, uncomfortable, cold (duh), but also relaxing, rewarding, and fun!
My first time winter camping was pretty tame. That’s how it should be, though. Almost four years ago to the day, I hiked out to the Fox Farm Campsite with Diamond. Click here for the whole story.
The next time I went out, it was with Diamond and Nick. This was a really short trip and more about cooking brats over an open fire and enjoying a couple beers. Click here for the Quickie Overnighter story.
In 2016, I started hitting it hard with aspirations of thru-hiking the Superior Hiking Trail. I also got serious about documenting gear and conditions. This trip was pretty difficult with deep snow and somewhat challenging conditions. In between Duluth and Two Harbors on the SHT can seem pretty remote and rugged. Click here for the next adventure and be sure to check my winter gear list!
It took my a while to make it up to a two-night excursion. There is a little more to lose in that scenario. This was a real backpack trip with hefty mileage and yes, two nights! Check out my Cross River adventure here.
Well, that’s a lot of reading but it’s a long and cold winter by the fireplace. Maybe you’ll become inspired to ditch the fireplace and hit the Superior Hiking Trail.