I stuck my hand down the hole I’d just chipped through the ice. My finger tips felt down the irregular wall until they reached the bottom of the ice and the lake below. My third knuckles grazed the surface of the ice–it was about three inches deep. I straightened my back, looked back at my traveling companions, and waved them forward. Three inches of ice would support our ski-distributed weight.
If images of fluffy snow, linked s-turns, and graceful kick-glide movements define skiing, we were not skiing. Bindings strapped our boots into skis, and poles hung around our wrists, but gear does not make the sport. We were closer to skating with 200-cm-long edgeless ice skates than to skiing. The surface of Little Gabbro Lake was bare but for 2-3 inches of black ice and occasional puddles of melt. Little air had mixed into the water as it froze, leaving clear ice behind to cover the dark waters below. We had scuffed our way across the lake, dragging pulks behind us. Our parallel scratches stretched a mile behind us.
As we had neared the Bruin Portage, the ice deteriorated. We crossed an island directly between us and the portage, limiting our time above the cold water. The ice in the small bay behind the island was markedly different, however. The surface became milky, splotched with rusty brown. My ski pole dug considerably farther into the softer surface, where it had only chipped the black ice in the main lake body. More water pooled on top of the ice, and it bubbled out of saucer-sized holes when we weighted nearby sections. It was the worst ice we’d seen so far.
It was my turn to lead the group and check ice along the way. I don’t have much experience reading ice, nor whacking things with an ax. Poor depth perception makes estimating lengths and depths difficult for me. I was cold from big crossing, and I hadn’t drunk enough water. I was grumpy, tired, and extremely nervous when I grabbed the metal ax and shuffled my way onto the ice.
I chipped through the wet, milky surface until water welled through the hole. The ice became clear and dark beneath the air-riddled surface layer. It seemed like it would hold, so I shuffled a few more ski lengths ahead. Clink-clink-clink–still good. Ten more feet, and I whacked again. Werp-werp-werp. The surface ice crumbled into slush, and the ax punched through after a couple of blows. I backed off and tried a spot to the right. The ax head splashed through water and soft, yellowish ice. As I stood up and put pressure on my skis, the layer of ice flattened beneath me and broke apart. Water lapped at my skis, but a couple of inches of ice below kept me from plunging in. I backed up, pushing against my pulk’s harness and poles. I looked wildly for better ice despite my brain reasoning that if the ice were going to fail, I would already be soaking wet. I aimed for shore at the suggestion of our trainer and picked my way toward ice that wouldn’t collapse beneath my skis. The thwap-thwap-thwap instead of werp-werp-werp reassured me. Two inches of ice were all we needed, and they were all we had.
On good ice again, we angled back toward the portage landing. A set of tracks followed a ribbon of translucent gray ice, and I followed the trail. I swung the ax every ten feet or so to unclench my stomach. Near the portage landing, the tracks resolved into perfect wolf prints. It seemed that wolf walked along the lake the surface froze, and the ice preserved the four pointed toes, extended claws, and triangular heel pad in textbook symmetry. My awe at the perfect prints slightly allayed my anxiety, but my heart didn’t stop racing until the whole group touched land with our skis.
Winter travel in the Boundary Waters can be gut-wrenching. The conditions are both more variable and more extreme than the summer. Consequences are higher, as are the number of environmental factors that conspire against you. Ice, snow, cold, wind, dogs, sharp tools, and roaring fires all lead lives of their own. The harshness of winter often daunts newcomers to winter expeditions. That same harshness holds allure as well, however. The conditions that create dire implications for screwing up–ice and snow especially–create unique opportunities. Frozen marshes welcome winter travelers to beautiful lakes inaccessible in summer. Tracked snowfields reveal the activity of countless animals who would otherwise lead secret lives. Few venture across the Boundary Waters in winter, creating the rare opportunity for solitary travel. The harsh environment also forces groups closer together; members of the expedition truly depend on each other for warmth and safety, and thus their lives.
I trembled slightly as the adrenaline drained from my body. My companions had all safely gained the shore where a well-worn portage connected Little Gabbro and Bruin Lakes. I would not hesitate to cross this protected bay in summer, but winter had frozen it into an uncertain maze. Eager to discover other transformations winter had wrought in the woods, I fanned my skis into a herring-bone and began climbing.