Tim, Backcountry Ambassador
It’s certainly been a challenging year for snow fall local to the Twin Cities (MN). We had a nice snowfall early in November and everyone was optimistic for another big snow year. Slowly that began to fade however with a brown Christmas and a lack of interest in our first scheduled outing on the North Country Trail over the Christmas break. I couldn’t muster any interest for a reschedule in January either. Thankfully for my own sanity I had a 3 day Wilderness First Responder re-certification scheduled so I was at least able to get some solid outdoor adventure related time in January. It was an interesting phenomenon though, without snow locally my usual snow-loving outdoor adventuring suspects seemed to lose interest.
So when they predicted some of the coldest days of the winter with -30 wind chills, I was worried about cancellations for our plans to snowshoe in and camp on the shoreline of Lake Superior in the Apostle Islands (WI). In responding to a few emails on the subject I assured participants that we’d make safe choices and reinforced adherence to the gear list. So off we went…
I’ve kayaked in the Apostles several times but never hiked the full trail from Meyers Beach into the only mainland campsite in this National Park. The National Geographic Map of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore shows the trail roughly following the shoreline, past the sea caves and on down in to the campsite, roughly a 5.5 mile trek according to the map. Based on this information, and the ensuing frigid temps, I elected to bring just compass and map and leave the GPS at home.
Our experience on trail was something a bit different. The trail started out as a boardwalk, very well constructed I might add, for a little less than a mile. Once off the boardwalk it frequently turned from the shoreline, traversing through the forest but then turned back to meet the bluffs in and around the sea caves. Unfortunately, due to the mild winter, the ice was not thick enough for foot traffic so we were unable to directly explore in the caves. Reports indicated there was open water at Meyers Beach and the surrounding area just one week earlier. There was signage warning us to stay back from the bluff’s edge due to the risk of unknowingly walking out on a weak shelf. We heeded the warnings and as a consequence were limited in viewing and photographing well most of the ice formations.
We obviously felt the bite of the wind chill while high on these bluffs but the view of Lake Superior and the ability to peer down into a few caves was worth it! Once we got beyond the sea caves the trail turned back towards the forest and we found ourselves in a constant up and down pattern of crossing deep ravine, one after the other, almost all the way to camp. As soon as we got down one side of the ravine we immediately were going up the other. It was incredibly beautiful back there though, quiet, snow covered wilderness, and warmer too as the sun appeared and we were sheltered from the wind. We were all on Tubbs Snowshoes by the way, 2 pair of Mountaineers and 1 pair of the Flex Alps. They worked beautifully up and down the steep graded ravines.
We arrived at camp later than expected, about 4:20pm and calculated the trek was more like 7-8 miles as opposed to 5.5. We walked onto the tent pad, aptly position for a view of the lake, felt the harshness of the wind and made an immediate decision to nestle our tents back in among the pines. With nightfall fast approaching and temperatures dropping we had to work fast to set everything up and attempt a well needed hot meal in daylight. We were doing just fine until the cook stoves decided to freeze up. We had two different styles, both rendered useless in the extreme cold. Luckily we had some military style fuel bars and were able to heat water hot enough to prepare two Backpacker Pantry meals. By now however we were using flashlights and starting to shiver pretty badly. In fact, one member of our group ended up eating his portion from his sleeping bag inside the tent. We survived the night quite well once we made it out of the wind.
Morning brought on a similar struggle. However, we were able to melt snow/boil water over an open fire. We bypassed the oatmeal and went for the high calorie dinners unused from the night before. Given our challenges with the temps and fending off hypothermia and our inability to easily make water we elected to trek out early.
In an effort to bypass at least a few of the ravines we dropped down onto the beach, which was really completely iced over as one would imagine. We weaved our way over and around the broken sheets of ice the wind had piled up until we reached a little side trail I knew about from a previous kayaking trip. Here again the Tubbs Snowshoes were amazing! I had on the FLEX Alps and with the teeth spanning the length of the snowshoe had no issue navigating up and down ice! As a comparison I turned back to see one member of our group take off his Mountaineers thinking it would be easier hiking, 15 minutes later after a series of falls, he was putting them back on.
I learned something else about snowshoes on this trip. We started out on the boardwalk in boots and continued this way once we passed the sea caves. Snow depth was about 8” in most places and we soon began to slip, not an ideal situation under the load of a 45-50 lb. pack. We strapped on the Tubbs gear and even though we didn’t need them necessarily to “float” on top of the snow, they were needed even in relatively shallow snow depth.