Winter Hiking Adventures : Be Prepared

The photo is of trees taken at dusk. The trees are black against the grey blue sky.

In need of a winter adventure I had made arrangements to take a couple days off from work for a trip to northern Minnesota to do some hiking, snowshoeing and camping. With the potential of a winter storm looming all week, I watched the weather predictions to be sure I wouldn’t be taking unnecessary risk by traveling during a big storm. The forecast looked for the snow to clear the area I was heading so all was a go.

I’d prepared for the worst – getting stuck in bad weather – by bringing extra food, an extra sleeping bag, extra clothing and ensuring I could clear a space to sleep in my car should it be necessary. The state park campgrounds where I was heading were closed so I’d either be (at best) sleeping in a state forest campground or (at worst) sleeping in my car. All the way I would continue to watch the weather and make decisions about continuing on or aborting the trip (see my post about making the decision to bail on a plan).

With my plans made, I set off for a long weekend starting early on Saturday morning. A bright sun peeked through the clouds. Three eagles crossed my path as I headed north.

The photo is of the Father Hennepin State Park sign. The sign features an image of a Common Tern, grey rocks and white Trillium. The sign is surrounded by trees. The ground is covered in snow. In the background there is a house and truck that can be see through the trees.

#4 of my 52 Hike Challenge

Trail/Park: Hiking Club Trail, Father Hennepin State Park

I want to acknowledge this hike took place on the traditional territory of Mdewakanton, Anishinabewaki ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᐗᑭ, and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ.

Father Hennepin State Park sits on the east side of Lake Mille Lacs in central Minnesota. For many summers I drove up the western side of the lake toward a family cabin, but I’d never ventured to the eastern shores of the big lake. I was excited to see the vast waterway from a different perspective. The drive took about two hours putting me at the winter parking area in the late morning. The small, 320 acre park’s road is closed to vehicles in the winter, but a wide circle just beyond the park office offers a place to park.

The Hiking Club trail was easy to locate where it crosses the closed road into the park. Turning to the east, the trail heads into and around the Lakeview campground. As I hiked past the sites, I imagined a warm summer breeze blowing across the lake, cooling the sites nestled in the hardwood forest. Views of the lake highlighted its vast expanse covered by ice and dotted with ice houses. The trail follows the shoreline past the Maple Grove campground. While I knew there were others in the park, I had the trail to myself which was exactly what I’d been hoping.

The trails were well packed so making my way along through the hardwood sections was relatively easy in just my boots. The entire Hiking Club trail is just over two miles long. It’s a sweet little park who’s primary focus is camping in one of the three campgrounds along with access to the lake from two boat launches and many fishing docks during the summer. The hike was a perfect way to kick off my weekend of hiking.

The photo is of the Savanna Portage State Park sign. The sign has images of two people portaging a canoe on the left and a person carrying a pack on the right. The top of the sign is an arch shape painted with trees and clouds. The sign has snow covered ground in front of it, trees behind.

#5 of my 52 Hike Challenge

Trail/Park: Hiking Club Trail, Savanna Portage State Park

I want to acknowledge this hike took place on the traditional territory of Mdewakanton, Anishinabewaki ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᐗᑭ, and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ.

Traveling north from Father Hennepin State Park about an hour brought me to Savanna Portage State Park. Getting started on my hike in the early afternoon I knew I was hiking against the setting sun. The park was established in 1961 with the intent of maintaining the Savanna Portage trail. This trail, linking the St. Louis and Mississippi Rivers and the trade of the native populations and later fur traders was a challenge to travel. A six mile long portage, it would often take those earlier travelers up to five days to traverse the forest, marsh and swamps. This undulating landscape provide me with an unexpected workout even on the fairly well packed trails.

DISCLAIMER: It’s important to note in winter the Hiking Club trail is snowmobile trail and not recommended for hiking as snowmobilers might not notice hikers until it’s too late. Wearing brightly colored jacket and being very aware of approaching vehicles is critical if you attempt this trail in winter. There are many blind approaches whether on machine or foot.

Even though the terrain was challenging, I found myself at the Continental Divide trail overlook within an hour of starting out from the parking area near Lake Shumway. This unique location falls on the North American Continental Divide – the point where, north of the line, waters flow north toward the St. Lawrence Seaway and south of the line, flow toward the Gulf of Mexico. The overlook provides a remarkable view over the northern portion of the Savanna State Forest.

Continuing on north from the overlook, the trail connects into the Savanna State Forest to the north or, looping south, turns back into the park near the group camp on the Old Schoolhouse Trail and then back along the Anderson Road Trail. The trail continues to undulate over what I’d characterize as moderately difficult terrain. A missed trail intersection took me further afield than I’d planned and added about a mile to my adventure. All the while I kept pushing myself to keep moving as the sun was sinking lower in the sky and the clouds holding precipitation were gathering to the south.

There is something about knowing you are pushing up against time marching on without you. Many times in the later part of this hike I had to remind myself to not stop to check how much further I had to go. To keep pressing on. I also reflected on the ambitiousness of my weekend plan. In winter everything takes longer. Snow pulls against you, daylight is limited and when the sun sets the darkness is complete. Knowing I still had a drive ahead of me on a forest road to set up camp pressed against my desire to slow down and take in my surroundings more completely.

Nearing my car, I was wondering if I’d make it to the campground by dark. Thoughts of heading home already creeping in. Two parks a day is a different prospect in the summer when the days are long. In winter daylight is precious. Slowing down to take in the silence and calm a blanket of snow brings is worth considering. Like many lessons of the past year, taking things in smaller chunks and savoring the moments is still something I’m working on learning. This day of hiking was a good reminder of the importance of slowly savoring experiences. Not taking them for granted. Of being grateful for the privilege to be able to travel, hike and camp.

Post Script: Yet another reason to be less ambitious. My hope to camp at the Hay Lake Campground in the Savanna State Forest which surrounds Savanna Portage State Park came with the understanding that forest roads can be difficult to travel, even impassible, in good weather. They are minimally maintained. That evening I neared the turn off from the county road to the forest road just as sunset was approaching, driving past the turn before realizing it. Turning back put my approach to the forest road with minimal view of the turn. Only as I took the corner and felt the car plunge into snow just over a foot deep did I see that the road, while it looked traversed, was not packed snow. By then it was too late. The front end of my car was deeply stuck in the snow and wasn’t going anywhere.

After trying in vein for about 15 minutes to use the snow shovel I’d been sure to put in the car to dig myself out of this kind of predicament, I relented. I would need to be towed out. A phone call to 911 routed me to the State Patrol who were kind enough to call a tow truck.

My wait would be at least 30 minutes so I prepped the car for the chance I’d need to sleep in it. I set an alarm for 45 minutes from the time I’d been told the tow was on it’s way and settled in with my headlamp and a book. Ironically I’d been given Grand Adventures by Alistair Humphries as a Christmas gift and saw fit to bring it on my trip. As I waited I read quotes from people he’d interviewed who’d done grand and seemingly crazy adventures. It reminded me that while the night would be an expensive inconvenience, I’d have a grand story to tell. I’d not been hurt and, hopefully, no damage had been done to my car.

A Note About Privilege: It was not lost on me that evening, after my car had been winched out of the snow, I’d paid the tow fee and driven to find a parking lot in a nearby town to boondock how privileged I was to make this trip in the first place. I’d made up my mind to head home in the morning and not tempt further mishaps. Sleeping in my car I was keenly aware of the people who live in their cars. Who would have been challenged to pay for a tow. Who would worry about whether or not they would be shuffled along from a boondock site, not knowing for sure where the next bathroom or shower might be available to them.

I had chosen to sleep in my car, I would drive home to a warm house and shower, do laundry and go back to work. That reality is not available to everyone. So as you adventure, keep in mind the enormous privilege it is to do so. Look around you. Be kind to those who cross your path. Find ways to give, volunteer and help someone in need or an organization that does. The more we help each other out, to understand each other, the better off we will all be.

GEAR: Oboz Bridger 7″ Insulated Waterproof Boots, REI Co-op XeroDry GTX Jacket, REI Co-op Magma 850 Down Hoodie 2.0, Marmot Kompressor Pack, SPOT GEN3 Satellite GPS Messenger, Kula Cloth, Tubbs Xplore 25 Snowshoes and Leki Women’s Micro Vario Cor-Tec TA trekking poles. Want to know more about my gear selections? Head on over to Gear & Gadgets or check out my posts titled “Gear in Review”.


Photo of a group of hikers on a sunny day in a field heading towards a wooded area. The photographer has taken the photo from behind the group.

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