Winter Adventures : Ahead of the Big Storm

The image is a close-up of an object which appears to be of stone. It's irregular in pattern with raised edges along the lines. The object is a bronze sculpture of a Blandings Turtle which sits outside of the Lake Maria State Park Visitor Center building.

#4 of my 2022 52 Hike Challenge

Trail/Park: Lake Maria State Park, Monticello, MN

This hike took place on the traditional territory of the Wahpekute and Očhéthi Šakówiŋ. I respect the histories, languages and cultures of these peoples, whose presence continues to enrich our vibrant and changing communities. To learn more about the tribes and these lands, please follow the links provided.

Trash Collected: While I didn’t weigh it, most of what I found was plastic. The kind of plastic bundles of firewood are wrapped. And the trash from what I brought in to eat.

The photo shows a fire ring with a fire burning within. A metal cup sits on the grate to the side of the fire. To the left of the fire ring there is a pile of cut wood. Ruth's legs and boots are in the foreground. The ground around the fire ring is covered in snow, bits of wood and a few dried, brown leaves.

My house smells like a campfire. In the best way, even now days later. A trip planned with a few friends turned into a solo hiking and camping adventure thanks to the inevitable disruptions life causes. I realized a long time ago to make plans, invite folks along, and keep doing what you’ve planned even if it ends up being alone. If you wait until a time that works for everyone, it may not come.

I could not have asked for a more beautiful two days. While my arrival at Lake Maria State Park was greeted with a a hearty wind, the park is beautifully wooded, providing just the right amount of shelter. I was excited to try out my incredibly simple makeshift pulk to haul the extra gear and wood I knew I’d need for a night or two of winter camping. I loaded (ok, overloaded) the pulk, strapped on my snowshoes, put my pack on and headed onto the trail.

The picture shows Ruth wearing a red coat, orange and black backpack and dark gray knit cap. Her sunglasses sit atop her head. In the background the bright blue tarp covering the contents of her pulk can be seen sitting on the snow covered grounds.

I learned a lot as I made my way along the short 3/4 mile trail to my campsite. While I’d tested the pulk the week before it had been on flat ground. The one hill I encountered had me questioning skis versus snowshoes, not how to control sled, to which I’d only added rope, not poles. The hills at Lake Maria State Park are a whole different challenge. Steeper elevation changes plus overloading the pulk made the distance frustratingly slow to cover. I learned trying to keep the pulk behind me wasn’t an option on the descents. I had to unclip the rope harness each time and turn the sled heavy end toward the slope. I learned I’d need to chose my path on the uphill sections more carefully so I wouldn’t lose control and tip the whole thing over, which I did several times. I had to simply slow down to make it work at all. In the end, I made two trips to get my gear and the wood I’d purchased to the campsite. I was still grateful for the pulk even though I’d found several flaws to my basic design.

Getting settled into my campsite and starting a fire was a breeze in comparison. The beautiful afternoon was fading to evening as I set up my tent, spread my new Nemo Sonic sleeping bag out over the layered sleeping pads. The park allows campers to use downed wood so I built a fire with a combination of found and purchased wood.

There is something wonderful about having camp set. It’s a feeling I have not grown tired of after all the years I’ve been camping. Knowing there is a place to sleep ready and waiting is one of my favorite parts. While tiring, it’s worth the effort. Before getting my dinner prepared I rested a bit. I allowed myself to relax, watching the family camping across the way move through their evening routine.

Enjoying the beginning of the sunset which turned from pale yellows and orange to a stunning display of red, orange and purple while I made dinner slowed me down further. Siting by the fire, despite the dropping temperature I felt accomplished. I’d brought my axe and a small handsaw which allowed me to cut up a rather large branch left behind by the last occupants of the site. I remembered a friend from a fall trip mentioning “banking” the coals from a fire to re-start it again later. I decided to try, carefully pushing the remaining coals and wood into a pile and burying it with the surrounding ashes.

As I climbed into my sleeping bag, the sound of the wind picked up hinting at the warmth expected the next day. I drifted off, waking now and then to the sound of howls from what I assumed was a pack of coyotes. Throughout the night I discovered my sleeping pad was leaking air under the closed foam pad I’d placed over it for extra insulation. I filled it again (and again) as the night went on. I was grateful for the warmth provided by my new sleeping bag. I was cozy and reluctant to get up when the sun rose even though I knew it was quickly getting warmer.

Eventually the need to head to the pit toilet won out. The sun was brilliant as I slowly uncovered the coals from the previous night. They were still hot. I stacked a few leaves and some kindling on top and waited. Slowly the pile started smoking. I added more kindling. Finally the little pile burst into flames. As I added more wood to the pile I swelled with excitement. I’d done it! I heated water for coffee and grabbed a breakfast bar while basking in the sunlight. Again, like the evening before, I sat and took it all in. The sounds of the forest, the warming day. No agenda, content to watch the crackling fire.

I banked the coals again in preparation for lunch and readied myself for a hike. Finding a few things to take in my pack to the car, I headed out on the Bjorkland Lake Trail loop. The winter trail undulates over the forested St. Croix Moraine landscape on the edge of the Big Woods region of Minnesota. Giving a view into the geological history of the land, the hike is moderately difficult and, in some sections, groomed for cross country skiing in winter. It wasn’t long before I needed to shed my jacket it was so warm. While I’d brought my snowshoes, I opted for my Yaktrax. I took my time making the trek around the loop and back to my campsite for lunch.

Un-banking the coals again and heating water for lunch I watched the hikers come by, some with kids, others with dogs. I’d consumed so much water it was time to refill my water bottles so I again headed toward the Trail Center. While inside, I checked the weather and noticed a winter storm warning had been issued for the evening and throughout the next day. I had a decision to make. Stay another night as planned and deal with what looked to be a large amount of incoming snow or head home beating out the storm. The decision to leave early is never an easy one. I had all the gear I needed, plenty of firewood and food. My snowshoes and pulk would make it less challenging to leave if there was deep snow.

In the end, I decided packing up my gear when it was still dry (mostly) was the best choice for me. Again covered the distance between the trailhead and camp. It pained me to douse the coals I’d banked, but was necessary before leaving the campsite. Looking at the wood I’d cut for the fire I consoled myself the next occupant of the site would have a surprise bounty. All the campers who had surrounded me the night before had packed up too. I took my time carefully loading the pulk to carry the remaining gear in one trip. Successfully back at the car, I transferred all of my gear and headed home. Despite my disappointment at leaving a day early, I was reminded how lucky I am to have the ability and time to embark on adventures like this where I get to practice the skills I’ve learned from many talented people. Which got me thinking about another camping and hiking trip from last fall…

The photo shows Ruth and her four winter camping friends. They are all wearing winter clothing, a few have trekking poles. All of them are smiling as the bright sun shines on them. In the background the trail is snow covered between thick pine trees.

#40 of my 2021 52 Hike Challenge

Trail/Park: Tettegouche State Park, Silver Bay, MN

This hike took place on the traditional territory of the Anishinabewaki ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᐗᑭ. I respect the histories, languages and cultures of these peoples, whose presence continues to enrich our vibrant and changing communities. To learn more about the tribes and these lands, please follow the links provided.

Trash Collected: Only what I brought in and packed out!

Adventures with friends are the best kind. Last November I was invited to join a group from work on a weekend of winter camping at Tettegouche State Park. What could be better? Well, the fact these are people who work for an outdoor retailer. You know there will be something to learn from each person who goes along. I was not disappointed.

First though, I’d need to get to Silver Bay. Along the way food would be in order. I’m horribly predictable when it comes to road trips in having a short list of fast food places to grab something quickly and hit the road again. This time I challenged myself to look for an alternative. Just north of Duluth on Old Highway 61 you’ll find the New Scenic Cafe. I ordered some Sashimi Tuna tacos to go and parked at the French River Rest Area facing Lake Superior. The tacos were amazing and the view was spectacular.

Hoping back on to Highway 61 I arrived at the park headquarters just as part of the group had come to buy firewood. I helped load the bundles into Norma’s car and followed them to the group campsite Kelly had reserved for us. We transferred the wood to the sled brought by Marshall and headed to the site. The large, sheltered group site had plenty of room for the 12 people expected to be joining for the weekend. Several folks had their tents set up. I joined in the action, setting up my small backpacking tent and settling my gear. Borrowing the sled, I gathered a few more things I’d brought to share and hauled them up the short hill.

As the evening progressed, each of us made dinner, shared equipment and stories. We relaxed into a loose group surrounding the fire while Marshall rigged a tarp to stave off the wind. Later I sampled chicken and fish smoked by Marshall. It was sublime eaten straight off the smoker. I watched and learned hoping to take tidbits from each member of the group and improve my own camping knowledge bank. Even Danny had something to share, setting up his heated tent and showing it off while he prepared the wood he’d use to stoke the stove for the night.

Finally the wind got the best of me so I headed to my cozy nest inside my tent. The wind continued to gain strength, my tiny tent leaning with each gust. Even so, I felt confident I wouldn’t blow away and drifted back to sleep. Throughout the night I heard an odd metalic sound which I completely dismissed until morning when I realized it was Danny stoking the stove in his heated tent.

The sunrise woke me earlier than many of the group. I got up reluctantly to use the latrine and was seduced by the morning glow coming from the east. I took a short walk which took me out of the woods in full view of the sunrise. There is something very special about sunrise when you’re camping. The first light of day is something I’m grateful to witness.

Quietly I headed back to camp, crawling back into my sleeping bag for warmth. The wind had died down, but it was cold outside. I drifted back to sleep only to be awakened by the quiet conversation between those who had gotten up and stayed outside of their tents. The fire was restarted with coffee being the first priority. Some brought coffee presses, others went for cowboy coffee. I reverted to my standby instant with hot cocoa for a trail style mocha. Breakfast was eaten and others arrived to join us.

Part of the group decided to take a hike to the High Falls, which I joined. The trail was mostly covered with a thin layer of snow and in places was a bit icy. I was thankful for my trekking poles when the footing was less than ideal. We covered many topics on the way and I appreciated the opportunity to get to know these people in a different context. All of them have a love of being outside as much as possible.

As we approached the high falls my anxiety with heights cropped up. I went as far as I was comfortable before opting to stop at an overlook while the rest of the group went further along. The time to myself gave me a chance to appreciate the day and the view. As members of the group reappeared we talked about the long flight of steps visible across the Baptism River and how none wanted to go down only to have to go back up again.

Turning back toward camp we talked about the chicken chili which would be shared for lunch. Back at camp we learned of an incoming storm which looked to be primed for dropping significant snow across a good chunk of Minnesota. After great deliberation a small group of us decided we’d head home after lunch in hopes of avoiding a drive in a snowstorm the next day. Lena got to work prepping the chili, which she’d thoughtfully considered how to make so each of us could add chicken and cheese of we wanted. The base with beans was so good on it’s own, I opted to just add cheese. Then we finished it off with one of the best and very thick slices of cherry pie brought by Melissa.

After lunch I packed up my gear and used the sled again for the trip to the car. Before leaving Norma, Lena and I decided my raving about the food at the New Scenic Cafe warranted a stop for early dinner on the way home. About an hour later we pulled into the restaurant parking lot and were able to get a table. This time I ordered something a bit more substantial and was again blown away. I got distracted by the plate on which my meal was served, convinced it was the same as my mom’s china pattern. The three of us talked about the previous 24 hours and all the wonderful contributions each person had made to the weekend. Then we stopped by the bakery case for a treat to go before heading home.

I was again reminded how I appreciate time outside with a group of people who enjoy it as much as I do. We may all come with different experiences and knowledge. We might not always see eye to eye on every subject, but the love for being outside is what ties us together. That is a special connection indeed.

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GEAR: Oboz B-Dry Bridger Mid Waterproof BootMountain Hardware Stretchdown™ Light Jacket, Mountain Hardware Stretchdown™ Pant, Smartwool Merino 250 Base Layer, REI Co-op XeroDry GTX Jacket, REI Co-op 650 Down Jacket, Oboz Bridger 7” Insulated Waterproof Boot, Graninte Gear Crown 38, SPOT GEN3 Satellite GPS Messenger, Dueter Dirtbag, Kula Cloth, Leki Women’s Micro Vario Cor-Tec TA trekking poles, Slumberjack 2-person tent with footprint, Nemo Dragonfly Ultralight Backpacking Tent, Nemo Sonic™ 0 Down Sleeping Bag, Paria Thermodown 30 down quilt, REI Flash 3-Season Sleeping Pad, Thermarest Z Lite™ Sleeping Pad, Thermarest Z Seat™, MSR Pocket Rocket Stove, GSI Pinnacle Dualist Cookset, MSR® IsoPro™ Fuel. 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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