A bit of gentle advice on winter camping: if it’s dangeroulsy below zero, don’t do it.
With the beginning of trout season, each year winter campers descend upon the frozen lakes of the BWCAW. There are a few common destinations from which to start a winter camping trek; East Bearskin is not the most popular winter camping entry (fortunately), but traveling from East Bearskin to Alder and beyond is one fairly well-used winter camper route. We see many campers go out in beautiful winter weather and in brutal winter weather. We also see them come back, sometimes after a superb trip and sometimes, in subzero conditions, with a great deal of pain and suffering, sometimes in excruciating pain and misery. There are always stories from those challenging, bitterly cold journeys back. They are better stories a few years later, after the terrible memories have faded, but at first the stories are of an experience that felt like a near frozen death.
In the past few days, when our night temperatures were -15 to -25 below zero, there have been several groups that returned after one night with members of their party in agony. One group had to leave all their gear in the BWCAW, a recurring problem now with winter BWCAW campers. (In this case, that may have been the necessary choice — they did need to get back to warmth. They may have saved their lives.) Quinn and Landen, both young, strong, and in great physical shape, will go back this afternoon in -10.5 degrees temps and retrieve all the left-behind stuff. This isn’t a service we, or anybody else, offers. They’re doing it because they’re super good people. And also, because finding abandoned winter camping gear in the BWCA might send the next group of winter campers into an unnecessary fearful frenzied search for the “lost campers.”
Only the most experienced of experienced campers should be camping out in the cold weather we are dealing with now. The legendary camping guru Bear Paulsen spends a month of winter in the BWCAW. That’s the kind of guy who can make it in -27 degrees. The rest of you – possibly not the best idea. Winter camping has been romanticized in literature and magazine articles, but it’s a lot more difficult to stay warm in subzero temps than you can imagine back in your cozy reading chair at home. The guys who came back today stayed awake every minute last night feeding the fire, woke up at 5 AM to break camp, and appeared on our doorstep at 7:30 AM, frostbit and suffering. It must have been a very difficult and worrisome night; we all thought it took a lot of fortitude to get back in the morning. That wasn’t the way winter camping is portrayed in the magazines and books, but it certainly can be the reality.
So what if your dream is to experience a successful winter camping trip? Many, many winter camping groups make fantastic winter memories; it doesn’t have to be a nightmare experience. How do you do that? One basic piece of advice underpins all the other essential winter camping skills you should learn: Plan your trip based on the weather, not on the days you were able to take off work. If it’s way, way below zero or incredibly windy, go some other time.
We can’t stop winter campers from heading out. No, we take that back: once Bob refused to let a school group go out in the future from East Bearskin after one of these bitterly cold weekends. The leader just took the kids somewhere else, but as a lifelong teacher Bob tried to discourage irrational leadership irresponsibility with kids when he saw it. Most of the Gunflint Trail businesses do not rent winter camping gear, even though many of the owners routinely winter camp. (Quinn has successfully winter camped for a decade, with no issues.) Many of us intentionally choose not to rent gear that encourages winter campers because we don’t dare take responsibility for the huge risk created by inexperienced campers going out in rapidly changing winter conditions. There are few winter camping guides in our area for the same reason. If you do choose to go with a guide, make sure that person has a substantial long history of successful winter camping in all conditions.
Minnesotans are a hardy bunch. We take pride in our ability to withstand temperatures that would demolish a Floridian in 10 minutes. But even the hardiest souls have their physiological limits in brutally cold winter weather. Be smart about spending your nights in the BWCAW in the winter. Look at the thermometer before you go and if the forecast is for incredibly frigid temperatures, there are all sorts of fantastic but less dangerous ways to enjoy our winter wonderland on the Gunflint Trail.
Rescues are a big part of our life. Bob and Quinn are members of the Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department and Search & Rescue, so no matter what type of incident happens up here, we get the call. They’ve rescued lots of lost hikers, and more than a few BWCA trippers. If you read about any incident in the Eastern BWCA, good or bad, Bob and Quinn usually were out there.
But they’ve never quite been out on a rescue like the one this morning. Today the GTVFD rescued a moose who went through the ice. Bob was there.
Barb and John Bottger were enjoying their morning tea, looking out their large picture windows at Hungry Jack Lake, when they saw the moose. Who you gonna call? GTVFD, of course.
Bob, Fire Chief Jim Morrison, and Hungry Jack outfitter Dave Seaton ventured carefully out on the ice, dragging canoes in case they went through the ice. The moose was clearly exhausted. There wasn’t much time left. The moose was calm enough that they could wrap straps around her neck. With a great deal of dragging, they got the moose’s feet up on the ice. Bob and Jim anchored themselves on the ice with an ice ax (Dave was smart enough to wear Yak Trax), so the three of them could start the long process of pulling and sliding the moose out of the hole. With a lot of trouble, muscle, and finagling, eventually the moose was dragged out on her side. She laid there for awhile, and eventually struggled back to a standing position. If only that were the end of it.
Moose must get hypothermia, just like people do. The moose stood there in a daze, and wouldn’t move. Occasionally she would shake water out of her fur, but she didn’t seem to be planning to take off. Ever. The rescuers stayed by her, encouraging her to move forward. The last thing in the world they wanted was for the moose to go backwards and fall back in the hole. One moose rescue was enough.
This went on for a very long time. The moose started moving a little more, appearing to be less dazed and fatigued, and began eyeing the shore as if she wanted to make a break for it. Perhaps she was frightened of the crowd of onlookers on shore. The group moved back and hid themselves out of sight, but still the moose wouldn’t leave.
Finally, Bob and Jim thought they’d start walking back towards shore and see what would happen. The moose followed them! Slowly, slowly they made their way towards the north shore until (wait for it) … the moose fell through again. A low point in the morning.
After much discussion, the group decided that the situation was different in this location. The moose could touch bottom, the ice was thinner and more crumbly, and if left alone perhaps she would make her way to shore. They decided to watch and wait. Indeed, she eventually did get out and headed off into the woods where a moose belongs. This moose has a story to tell if any moose friends will listen.
This doesn’t always turn out so well for animals who fall through the ice. The Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department is not usually there to save the day. When Kaitlin and Quinn were little, we were canoeing on Fall Lake when we spotted the bones of an animal underwater, a deer or a moose, I can’t recall. It must have been the same situation, the animal had fallen through the ice not far from shore but nobody was there to perform a rescue. The animal drowned and the bones laid on the bottom exactly in an animal shape. The kids gathered up the bones, and brought them home. Every so often they would reconstruct the beast on the garage floor. It always made us sad.
But this is the moose who got away! We hope it lives a long moosey life, and stays off thin ice.
When you’re visiting Bearskin Lodge, you are almost as far north as you can go and still be in the US. You are also in one of the few remaining “dark skies” areas of the country, which means we have the lowest possible level of light pollution. Your chance of seeing astronomical events at Bearskin can be very good if you devote some time to looking up at the night skies.
Seeing the aurora borealis up here is a dream for many people, so it’s always a heart-breaker when guests discover that a magnificent display of lights occurred right over their cabin — but they never saw it. Here are a few hints for chasing the lights during your Bearskin visit.
What does the aurora look like?
Think back to all those stunning photos you’ve seen of spectacular green, purple or even aqua northern lights, swirling overhead. Then erase that imagery, because that’s probably not what you’re going to see with the naked eye. Although the northern lights can contain a full spectrum of colors, our night vision color receptors do not pick up very many of the colors. The colors are there, just not so you can see all of them. It’s a lot like green grass – at night it’s still green, but it doesn’t look green to your eyes. (Thank you, Debbie Center, for that analogy.)
Unless you are seeing the aurora through a camera, which has many more sensitive color sensors at night than your eyes have, in far northeast Minnesota you are mostly going to see a white shimmering glow. If you’re one of the lucky ones with more sensitive color receptors in your eyes (or if it’s an exceptionally bright display), there may be rays and swirls of green, aqua, and purple, depending on the degree of darkness. If you have typical eyes, the aurora will look more like oddly moving white clouds in the sky – except that it’s dark, and you won’t normally see moving clouds then.
When should we look?
Once you realize that you’re not looking for a colorful neon light show, seeing the lights is simply a matter of knowing when and where to look. The aurora can show up at any time of year. There is no such thing as “northern lights season,” because lights are geomagnetic disturbances caused by storms on the sun. They have nothing to do with seasonal occurrences here on earth. Winter is sometimes advertised as “northern lights season,” but only because it’s darker for a longer time. You might not need to stay up quite so late to chase the lights in February.
It’s also easier to see the aurora when there isn’t a bright moon. A very dark night with clear skies and minimal moonlight is ideal for seeing northern lights.
There are many phone apps and computer web sites that can help you predict the best nights for great aurora viewing but they can’t forecast very far ahead, nor are they completely accurate. Predictions are a guess based on current sun activity. A common question we get is, “When should we come to Bearskin next (month/year/week) to see the aurora?” We truly have NO idea. Visit us when you are going to have a fabulous time anyway and then if the northern lights appear, it will just be one more unforgettable memory.
Where should we look?
This may seem obvious, but to see the northern lights you need to look north. That can be tough at Bearskin because our cabins are along the lake’s north shore. You need to get out on your dock, or out in a boat, or out on the lake ski trail in the winter, to be able to see a northern view. If the lights get going nicely, then there will be an arc of lights across the resort from the NW (staff housing direction) to the NE (the BWCA end of the lake). Occasionally the lights form an umbrella of light over the entire lake, but don’t expect that. It’s a rarity.
If you see an odd glow on the north horizon an hour or more after sunset, start hoping for lights. People often assume they are seeing the lights from a city (nope), or the dim last light from the sunset (nope, the sun never sets in the north). Then give yourself at least 10 minutes for your eyes to adjust; it takes time in the dark for your eyes to start to see the aurora. Bearskin sells headlamps that include a red light; these allow you to see outside without disturbing your night vision. Once you spot the lights, we promise you will be mesmerized. You might see pillars, arcs, curtains, pulsation, shooting rays, soft clouds, or even hear auroral noises.
Photographing the northern lights
If you wish to “see” the aurora through the lens of a camera, it will require a little pre-planning and a slightly better camera than a typical “point and shoot.” Your cell phone camera might work, especially if you can download one of the many apps that allow you to have more manual control over the phone camera settings. The best results are achieved with a DSLR camera, or a high quality “point and shoot” with advanced manual settings.
You need to be able set the ISO on your camera to a high number, probably 800 or considerably higher. The bigger the number, the more “noise” your pictures might have – but sometimes that’s a trade-off you make to get aurora photos with your camera.
You will need to set the shutter speed on the camera, probably somewhere between 10 – 30 seconds, so it stays open quite a while. That’s how the camera gathers the colors. Experiment with increasing the shutter speed, until you see a picture that works. If you are shooting the lights with a simple camera or phone, maybe a setting for night photos will give you a longer exposure.
Because the lens needs to stay open a long time, a tripod or support is essential. If you didn’t bring a tripod, find a way to set the camera on a firm surface. You can’t hold the camera still long enough to let in adequate light without assistance.
The focus on your camera should be set to infinity, or whatever setting focuses very far away. If you can turn off automatic focusing, get rid of it.
You will also need to look for the f-stop setting on your camera; it needs to be at the smallest number that your camera will permit. If you have lens choices, a wide angle lens captures more of the aurora, but it isn’t essential.
Pressing the shutter sometimes wiggles the camera too much. A remote shutter control is ideal. (Amazon sells them for many cameras for around $7, not a big investment). A work-around is to take pictures with your camera’s timer. Many cameras have a 2-3 second delay option; most have a 10 second option, which seems interminable when you’re waiting for your camera to go off under the aurora. You have to work with what your own camera will do.
There are so many other camera settings that the experts use to photograph the lights, but these will get you started. If your camera has good “live view,” you may be able to watch the lights right in the back of the camera. Otherwise, just take dozens of photos, look at them, adjust as you go, and sooner or later you may see colors.
How can you bring out all the colors of the aurora in your pictures?
Almost all of the photos of the northern lights that you see online and in books have been put through an editing program to bring out more of the colors. Search “aurora post processing” for hundreds of articles on how to do this. Adobe Lightroom is the most popular, but any photo editing program will be fun for you to try. Even simple phone apps like Aviary will let you play with your pictures.
Many of the aurora photos that you see are art, not reality. I think the goal should be to make it look somewhat similar to what you saw that night, or at least reflect the real experience. Other photographers, though, enjoy bringing out as many stunning colors in photos as possible, often cranking up the colors so the lights look turquoise, yellow, magenta, and orange. If you look at northern lights photos often, you’ll eventually decide on a color range you like. The point is to experience the lights and then, if you get some photos, to extend your enjoyment of the experience by recreating your vision of the aurora, however simple or wild that may be!
Facebook group: Become a member of Great Lakes Aurora Hunters. All your questions will be answered there sooner or later. Wondering if the aurora is out? Just look at GLAH; if the lights are dancing, somebody on GLAH will say so. Every foolish or insightful question about photographing the lights has been asked on this Facebook site, often repeatedly. You can learn a great deal from this group. Check the section called “notes” on the page. It leads to countless useful articles.
Do a web search of “photographing northern lights:” You will get dozens of informative articles about viewing the lights and photographing them.
Space Weather Prediction Center:http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/ So much info here, but for the northern lights you want to click on the box at the lower right that shows the Ovation aurora model, which predicts auroral activity. If there’s any sign of that bright green or better yet, mutli-colored oval being close to the tip of Minnesota, there’s hope for lights. This section of the website shows a 3 day prediction: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/products/aurora-3-day-forecast
softservenews.com: Yes, it sounds like a website about ice cream, but for some reason it’s about the northern lights. This might not be the most reliable aurora predictor, but it certainly is the one of the easiest.
Aurora Forecast/Geophysical institute: From Alaska, but fairly useful for us
Using an iPhone? “Northern Lights Photo Taker,” (they didn’t expend any energy coming up with a flashy name) is an app for iPhone that automatically adjusts your phone correctly for aurora pictures. It’s easily downloaded and works pretty well. You still need a tripod or stabilization.
Forecasting the northern lights: There are many apps that will let you know when the lights are likely to appear. We use “My Aurora Forecast.” We really like this one, but there are others that are equally well-reviewed.
Nine years ago today the eastern section of the Boundary Waters canoe area was raging with fire. 75,000 acres of pristine land was burning wildly out of control. Houses were lost. Lives were risked. Smoke filled the air all the way down to the Twin Cities.
And that is when Sue and Bob McCloughan signed the purchase agreement to buy Bearskin Lodge, in the midst of a fire that threatened to burn down the business.
We spent our days at school with one eye on our students and the other glued to the internet news about the fire. Eventually I just gave up and said “Kids, let’s go off topic and learn something really interesting about fire, that will also explain why your eyes are watering now.” We all watched the changing fire maps and ravaged pictures.
As the fire came closer to Bearskin, Bob & I tried to ascertain what precautions were being taken by Bearskin. The owner wanted the lodge sale to remain a secret from his employees, yet from afar we were wildly concerned that “our” property would burn down and wished we could dare ask the employees what was happening. We called the owner, who said everything is fine, the sprinklers are going, and it’s so little to worry about that we’re flying to the tulip show in Iowa.
We already had enough history with him to think perhaps a second call was in order. I called Bearskin and got Dee, who would later turn out to be a dear friend. I said I was concerned about the Lodge and wondering what they were doing. Dee assumed I was another one of the many concerned members of the Bearskin fan club, and talked about the preparations to leave. “Are the sprinklers on?” I asked. It was evident that homes and businesses with the fire suppression sprinklers were surviving. “Um, no, we, um, won’t be using the sprinklers,” she said. “We don’t think we need them.” She was respectful enough of her current boss that she didn’t say, “No, we won’t be using the sprinklers because the FEMA sprinkler system was never maintained and is now in a thousand broken pieces, and actually we all think our boss believes it is in the best interest of the resort to burn down.” (She saved those truths for later, in the many re-tellings of the story.)
We weren’t there, so we don’t know precisely what happened next. Over the years we’ve heard many variations of this story and each individual has their own take on what happened; the stories differ greatly. In Dee’s version of the story the owners were flying to Pella, Iowa. (Although we later heard they did show up at the lodge at some point, so good.) Most Bearskin employees went to shelters in Grand Marais under very stressful conditions.
It was quite traumatic for some of the staff. One of them had a seizure outside the shelter, changing his life for a long time to come. Another just cried and cried. The youngest employee, Adde, rose to the occasion and figured out how to be the adult in the group, a skill she can still muster up regularly in her real life today.
We only heard the stories after the fact. All we knew was that we just put a lot of money down and signed a pile of papers to buy a resort where no preparations were being made to keep the resort from burning down momentarily.
And luckily, it didn’t. A tongue of the fire made its way towards our area, but was kept under control. The physical beauty of our area remained untouched by fire and the cabins and resorts around us continued to be safe. This time. There’s a long history of fires in these big woods and we understand that our turn could come. We hope not soon.
The Ham Lake fires probably started because of one camper. Conditions were right to spread a fire very quickly – as they are today. The individual who accidentally started the fire was identified, demonized, persecuted, prosecuted, and basically dragged through hell until he eventually committed suicide. There’s a fascinating recounting of his unfortunate story here.
The lesson is please, please, please be careful with fires up here. It’s dry and windy today. There are thousands of branches down on the ground from this winter’s bend-down. Keep fires small. Some of you folks who like your pile of wood to be in a 5 foot tall tipi shape when it gets lit are just asking for trouble with those giant fires. Small, under control, and always watched is the way the pros make a fire. Above all, don’t walk away from the fire. We see this all the time in the campground: raging fire in the pit, nobody around for miles—or even worse, obviously tents full of sleeping people. You can do better than that.
We will have fire on the Gunflint Trail again. We are all a little more prepared for it now, after lessons learned from Ham Lake. Bearskin has invested in an outstanding all – encompassing FEMA fire suppression sprinkler system. We test it regularly, keeping it in excellent shape each year. Bob and Quinn are fire department members, who have been well-trained to assist in a fire or a rescue and best of all, they have ARMOR fire department radios to be in quick contact in an emergency. And needless to say, if something bad happens Bob & Sue, Quinn & Kate will be here to make sure, first of all, that our sweet staff is safe and un-traumatized and secondly, to do what we must to preserve all your Bearskin memories here.
But let’s avoid another Gunflint Trail fire if we can. Do your part!
Almost everyone who visits Bearskin has high hopes of observing three specific northwoods animals. The number one goal is always to spot a moose, then glimpse a bear (but only the rear end, as it runs away), and maybe, with luck, see or hear a wolf.
So you might be surprised to know that none of those creatures are the animal that Bearskin guests talk about the most during their stay. Foxes are actually the critters that make our guests extra happy. Hundreds of photos of posing and preening foxes are snapped every summer around the Main Lodge. We sell dozens of fox stuffed animals, foxy kids’ purses, fox books, and fox cards.
Bearskin has a long history of having fairly tame red foxes living on the grounds of the resort. When we first arrived at Bearskin almost a decade ago, our employee Adde regularly made meals for a ridiculously tame fox, and even allowed the fox into her apartment occasionally. Foxes have been known to get in canoes, and supposedly a fox can untie a boat from the dock. They peek in windows, pose on deck railings, and occasionally run off with meat intended for the grill. The Shoe Stealing Fox (aka Imelda), was perhaps the most famous Bearskin fox, covertly sneaking flip flops, hiking boots, and tennis shoes off the deck and steps of cabin 7. Many a family combed the woods behind cabin 7, desperately trying to find a missing sneaker so a kid wouldn’t spend the remainder of their vacation limping around with only one shoe.
So here is a story to add to the fox legends: About a week ago, when the ice was still solid, Kate and Quinn observed a fox crossing the bay with something in her mouth. At first they assumed the fox was carrying a rabbit or squirrel, killed for dinner. But as they looked more closely, they realized she was carrying a baby fox kit all the way across the lake. Then she came back for another. And another, and another. By the time she was done ferrying her whole litter across the lake, the fox looked exhausted. It was no small task to move her family. This was peculiar behavior. Quinn and Kate wondered why she would go to that much trouble to abandon a home and move so far away.
Previously, Quinn and Bob had been rebuilding the steps to cabin 7. When they pulled the old steps off, they found chewed boards, broken styrofoam, and multiple signs that animals had been tunneling under cabin 7 for years. So, of course, Quinn and Bob did a top-notch job of resealing every crack and hole, nailing up new boards and filling every possible animal entry point with spray foam. No creature would be getting back under that cabin!
Quinn thought about the fox mother for a few days and then started to wonder if her grueling move might be connected in some way to the rebuilding of the cabin 7 steps. Yesterday Quinn and Bob went back to cabin 7 and pulled off a few of the new boards, attempting to see under the steps.
It was a surprise to discover a sizable fresh tunnel under the steps, circumventing their repairs. At that point it became apparent what must have happened: Bob and Quinn had accidentally entombed the litter of baby foxes. For two days they had worked on the steps, sawing and pounding and probably terrorizing a little fox family. When the job was over and the foxes’ fear subsided, that mother dug an incredibly difficult new tunnel, removed all her babies, and stoically carried all of them as far away from that dreadful Cabin 7 as she possibly could.
We were left with two thoughts:
First, that is an extraordinarily heroic fox mother.
And secondly, deep under cabin 7 there are probably several years’ worth of missing shoes.
By now most people have heard something about the thousands of trees that bent over into snow-covered rainbow shapes after the heavy, wet snow of December 16-18. All winter activities in Cook County have been affected by the massive number of trees bending over every roadway or trail, and a huge amount of effort has gone into clearing trails over the past few weeks.
Bearskin and Golden Eagle staff members were out clearing almost nonstop for days, and we did get most of our trails back in good shape pretty fast. Dan at Golden Eagle says he lost about 6 pounds on the Bend-down diet — apparently the grueling task of cutting down trees every day is actually a healthy thing to do! Bob would not agree since clearing trees has left him with tendinitis in both elbows, an issue that has not successfully excused him from the daily clearing activities.
Many guests have ventured into the bent-down areas, describing crawling through the snow-laden trees as a surreal experience, or like trying to enter Narnia.
Here’s a picture taken when Jim Pohle and Joe Zuaro tried to ski into Old Logging Camp the morning of December 30. They came across workers from Golden Eagle making headway on the trail, but it was far from passable. This trail is in good shape now, but it took some time.
Here’s Roger Kolarich wending his way down a trail before it was cleared. In the good spots it looked like this:
But in most places, this was the trail — entertaining to snake through for awhile but it was an adventure, not a ski trip:
At this point there are a few short, non-essential connecting trails that are still covered with trees and, of course, Poplar Creek, a 6.3 mile trail into the middle of the deep wilderness that is covered in trees and even still has swampy, unfrozen wet segments. (That’s another peculiar thing about this winter!) In many places it’s been hard to even find the Poplar Creek Trail. On Friday a big crew of volunteers and employees of Bearskin and Golden Eagle went out on Poplar Creek trail with a vengeance, determined to speedily get the job done.
Bob and local fire chief Jim Morrison encountered an interesting phenomena: 40 foot tall trees, just bent over at the very top. Bob said it was incredibly beautiful, except they kept breaking and crashing down onto the trail in a wall of falling snow and branches. They theorized that vibration from the chain saws might have been just enough to set the fragile trees off — so, wisely, they quit standing anywhere near one of those trees.
By the end of Friday afternoon Poplar Creek wasn’t done, but the workers made significant progress. At least they can see the trail now. Kate and Quinn are out clearing again this afternoon, and those two can energetically make progress fast. Achy Bob is out there too with our employee Matthew, and for an old, sore guy Bob is surprisingly vigorous at ripping out trees. It won’t be long before we can officially add Poplar Creek back on the Central Gunflint Trail Ski map.
Meanwhile, it keeps snowing up here, and new trees keep bending over from the increasing weight. The snow that causes this is thickly frozen onto the trees, so windy days don’t seem to clear the snow piles off the branches. It makes the pine trees almost fakey beautiful, like the snow-blobbed pines on plaster Christmas houses. Photographers have come from all over the country to take photos of the pine trees on our trails right now. We’re always going to remember the hard work it took to get these trails clear again, but for most people who came up here, the beauty of this winter will be what they recollect.