Yurt Ski Trip

Published: September 18, 2006

It was early Sunday morning when I heard the airplane overhead. If the passengers saw us, I was sure we’d be mistaken for moose. This deep in the Canadian wilderness, in the middle of an immense frozen lake, people would assume four slow-moving black dots to be wildlife of some sort.

Most of the time they’d be right. We were definitely outnumbered by the moose and wolves and white tail deer of the region. And except for the small Canadian town of Atikokan 20 miles away, we were likely the only humans for 100 miles in any direction.

In fact, the plane was the first sign of human life I’d seen since our ski trip began three days before.

But that’s why we came to Ontario’s Quetico Provincial Park, Canada’s counterpart wilderness preserve to Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Solitude is pretty much guaranteed in Quetico during winter, where only 50 to 100 people request permits to camp in the 1.2-million acre park each year between November and March.

For a change from my usual winter-camping routine, which involves sleeping out under the stars in northern Minnesota, I invited my father, Chuck, and a friend, Steve Millard, on a ski trip guided by the Atikokan-based Quetico Outfitters. Instead of small camp stoves and puffy sleeping bags to keep us warm, we’d rely on a network of large, canvas-walled tents and a pair of teepee-like structures called yurts that are set up about 20 kilometers apart along Quetico’s northern boundary.

These wilderness shelters let groups like ours ski or snowshoe from tent to tent each day, eliminating the burden of having to make a camp every evening. Unlike a normal winter-camping trip, my backpack weighed less than 30 pounds, as the tents had been stocked ahead of time with sleeping bags, air mattresses, cooking supplies and all the items I’d normally have to haul in. Our guide, Garth Stromberg, carried most of the food in his backpack and doubled as the chef during our three-day trip.

Despite the lightened load, our journey through the park was a serious, strenuous adventure. We spent the first night in a yurt at Quetico’s drive-in Dawson Trail Campground then jumped in the next morning with a 22-kilometer ski.

Stromberg led on the hilly portage trail from the campground. He paused every few minutes — arm outstretched, ski pole dangling from his wrist — to point out untouched 350-year-old white pines or wolf tracks in the snow.

After an hour of skiing, the trail ended and the snow got deep. We coasted downhill onto Pickerel Lake, an immense body of water the stretches more than 40 kilometers east to west. Most of our time for the next two days would be spent on Pickerel’s seemingly endless ice shelf.

On the lake, the usual kick-glide cadence of Nordic skiing was replaced with plodding through ankle-deep snow. When breaking trail my ski tips poked just a few millimeters out of the fluffy mantle. For six hours we laid fresh tracks across miles of featureless lake ice.

While Stromberg guided much of the time, he was happy to let us lead and navigate across Pickerel’s island- and bay-riddled expanse. On the ice, peninsulas looked like islands, and passages that seemed to be heading the right way often dead-ended in bays. Because of this, I unzipped my chest pocket every half-hour to retrieve the map and check location.

Three kilometers from camp, the clouds lowered and the sun grew dim. Daylight became flat and weak. White sky blended with the snow, and there was an utter, almost surreal lack of detail: no color, no topography, no trees or rocks.

Darkness set in as we skied into a bay halfway down Pickerel Lake and found the gear Stromberg had pulled in on a sled earlier in the week. Because we were his first group of the year to this location, the canvas tent had not yet been set up.

Working with the canvas tent, which Stromberg referred to as a prospector-style tent, was the most interesting part of the trip for me. These shelters, which are still made by the 120-year-old company Woods Canada, let you quickly set up an oasis of warmth in an otherwise cold, snowy world. Without such structures, the trappers, explorers and mining prospectors of the past would have lived a very uncomfortable existence in this region.

When we arrived at the camp on Friday night after the 22-kilometer ski, the wind was blowing and we were exhausted. It was after dark and our tent was on the ground folded up next to some pine logs.

Jumping up and down to stay warm, I followed orders and tied cord around trees, heaved log poles into place and kicked snow around the bottom edges of the canvas to seal off the tent from wind. Stromberg unpacked the barrel-shape wood-burning stove and fitted sections of chimney together.

Everyone was required to pitch in at camp. After an hour working on the tent, we chopped wood, chipped a hole in the lake ice to get drinking water, and retrieved stones from under the snow for use in the tent with the stove. But no one minded. It was actually a blast getting our hands dirty and learning how the people of this region survived the long winter months before civilization moved in.

After two hours of set-up chores, we were inside the tent sitting next to the stove and waiting for a pot of water to heat. The interior space was huge, measuring 12 × 14 feet with a 7.5-foot sloped ceiling. The four members of our group could stretch out, walk around, organize gear, cook, and wash dishes without interfering with one another. There was so much space that we moved the woodpile inside by the stove so we wouldn’t have to step out into the snow to get logs.

Later in the evening, as the stove roared, I hung up a small thermometer in the middle of the tent. I was amazed to see the mercury at 55 degrees Fahrenheit, as it was below zero just a couple inches away on the other side of the canvas.

While regular winter camping can be tolerable with the right gear, I’ve found it more often to be cold and somewhat miserable, especially if my clothing is damp from the day’s ski. Not so in this tent. We added some big logs to the stove before bed and slept comfortably just inches away on soft air mattresses. Our wet mitts and long johns hung above drying all night long on a clothesline. And if we felt like going out for some late night stargazing, we could stand up straight and easily put our boots and jackets back on without disturbing our snoozing tent buddies.

The trip in general was a strange mix of pain and pleasure, modern and primitive. Long ski trips during the day in cold temps and harsh winds were balanced by warm, quiet nights around the wood-burning stove. We had to chip through lake ice to get water, but once it was in the kettle we could have hot coffee in minutes. These simple touches of civilization felt luxurious within Quetico’s wild, remote backdrop.

For three days in early January we did not see anyone else in the woods. For three days we did not hear car noise on a distant highway and did not cross any road. We didn’t even use a trail map.

Instead, we skied alongside wolf tracks. We followed the path of a moose onto an island. We saw bright stars. We skied past old-growth forests and pink granite outcroppings.

But I expected all of this. It was beautiful, but it was anticipated.

What I didn’t expect was the awing, vast silence of the region.

I stood on the lake alone one evening and looked out into the darkness. The moon shined dimly through low clouds. Snow was a soft and muted shade of gray. The shore across the bay was blurry and barely visible.

No sound. No movement. No wind. The stars were hidden under clouds. The trees just motionless silhouettes onshore.

I was alone with my thoughts. I paused and heard nothing at all but my own, distant heartbeat.

This is the general circumstance in the winter woods, I realized at that moment. Once in a while a wolf will run by, a bird will land on a branch, snow will fall or the wind will blow. But otherwise silence and cold stillness is the state of being.

And this great stillness stretches north a thousand miles to the arctic.

I was humbled: I was made to feel inconsequential on the lake that night. Yet I also felt strangely privileged and happy to be a part of this quiet place.

My boots crunching on the snow sounded extra loud as I walked back toward camp. The moonlight was dim on the trail leading uphill to the tent. The golden glow of the stove flickered on the outside canvas walls as I approached.

I could hear my father’s voice. He was telling the others that he’d always wanted to set up a place in the woods like this and live simply for a week or two. I slipped quietly inside, took off my boots, and moved close to the fire to warm up.