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Photo of winter camping.

Retro Winter Camping

An old-fashioned canvas tent and a woodstove can turn camping in the cold north woods into a comfortable, convivial trip.

by Gustave Axelson

Two sets of snowshoe tracks perforated the snowscape at the entrance of George H. Crosby-Manitou State Park. One was laid down by a previous traveler going into Benson Lake. The other seemed to be the same traveler, headed out.

image of tent

Tag Along

Watch a video from the author's winter camping trip.

"Nobody's home," I grinned at my mates. Photographer Mike Dvorak and his friend Ryan Bregier had joined me for a two-night mini-expedition into this backpacker-oriented park. There are no car-camping sites here, only backcountry sites that require a hike to access. The lack of amenities partly explains why Crosby-Manitou receives just one-twelfth the traffic of its big sister Tettegouche State Park on the North Shore. Come midweek in winter to this place where average annual snowfall is 5 feet, and chances are good you'll have the 6,600-acre park to yourself.

The snow was up to my thigh on this visit. We strapped on snowshoes and lugged our pulks—toboggans modified with bungee cords for strapping down gear—a half-mile to the top of a ridge beside Benson Lake. It was a short walk, only a half hour, but enough to work up a sweat. We sat down to snack on energy bars among the snow-burdened white cedars at our campsite, and I shed my parka and wool sweater. But things were about to change. Minutes later the sun dipped below the jagged horizon of conifer treetops across the lake, and the temperature plummeted. The chill nibbled at my extremities, numbing my fingers and penetrating up through my boots to the bottoms of my feet. I layered on the sweater and parka, but my clammy skin shivered nonetheless. Anyone who's read Jack London's "To Build a Fire" feels a little twang of dread if outdoors when the ominous and heavy cold sets in on a winter night in the north woods.

Making Camp.

"Let's set up camp," I said. Dvorak already had the tent out of the pulk.

Within 15 minutes, our party fitted the white canvas tent over its metal A frame and assembled and connected the stovepipe to a wood-burning stove the size of a file cabinet drawer. The stove soon ?hosted a roaring fire of twigs and branches, and smoke gushed from the stovepipe.

We all three clambered into the tent and laid out our sleeping bags. By the time we were settled, the temperature inside the tent soared to 70 degrees. Cold-hardened grimaces melted into smiles, then erupted into joking and laughter. I set a pot of frozen chili atop the stove. Dinner would be ready in minutes. And we had the rest of the night to lounge in our longjohns.

Most winter campers today would say we were nonconformists. Contemporary cold-season camping is the realm of space-age engineering. Heavy-duty winter sleeping bags are constructed with nylon ripstop shells and fills rated to minus 40, and they're meant to be tossed in a snowbank for Spartan overnight accommodations.

But there's a budding movement of winter campers who favor the 18th-century comfort of a canvas tent and woodstove. It's a little-practiced technique that Minnesota outdoorsman Calvin Rutstrum celebrated 40 years ago in Paradise Below Zero, his classic guide to winter camping. In his book, Rutstrum seemed baffled by the minimalists who camped in the snow:

A common misperception that winter camping and travel is an ordeal practiced only by hardy individuals with low sensibility to pain and cold should be discarded . . . the belief that a sleeping bag can be rolled out on the snow in the open at any temperature for comfortable sleep is an illusion. Why anyone should unnecessarily resort to corporal punishment for sheer bravado, I have never been able to grasp.

Winter Camping Revival.

When I awoke in the morning, my face sticking out of my mummy bag was numb, and I could see my breath. The stove had burned out about an hour after we fell asleep.

In minutes though, we rebuilt a fire, and the stove roared back to life. The coffee pot percolated, and a pot of water boiled for oatmeal. We were soon warm again. And more important, we had remained dry; there was no condensation inside the tent walls from three people breathing all night.

Breathability is a classic benefit of canvas, says Kevin Kinney, proprietor of the Empire Canvas Works winter clothing company in Duluth. "Because canvas is a cotton natural fiber, moisture can travel directly through the fibers themselves," says Kinney.

North West Fur Company trader David Thompson wrote about sleeping in a canvas tent during his explorations of Minnesota and Canada in the late 1700s. For the next 200 years, canvas was considered the superior fabric for tents and outdoor gear, until the 1960s when nylon mountaineering and ultra-light backpacking gear dominated the camping market. But nylon tents weren't well-suited to winter camping, particularly because nylon and hot stoves are incompatible. So tent camping tended to be a warm-weather activity, and winter campers often went sans tent. Camping out in the open on a cold winter night, or building a quinzee (snow cave) for shelter, was only appealing to a hardy group of outdoors extremists. Winter campers became a fringe group.

But Cal Rutstrum's classic winter camping technique is making a comeback. So says Mike Keller, owner of The Canoeist, a Two Harbors outfitter that rents pulks, canvas tents, and portable woodstoves. Last winter the business had three or four clients camping out in the snow every weekend from January through March.

"I think people are discovering the comfort and warmth of this style of winter camping," says Keller. "I've slept under a tarp in the Boundary Waters in winter, and it was cold and I was wet from all the slush, and I never dried out. But with the tent and stove, you're dry and warm. It can be 30 below outside, and you're sitting inside the tent in your skivvies playing cribbage.

"You don't have to be a tough guy to enjoy it."

Trout Calories.

A person who usually requires a 2,000-calorie daily diet needs to consume up to 6,000 calories in deep cold conditions. As for me, Dvorak, and Bregier, we intended to pile up those calories by eating trout we caught from Benson Lake.

Benson is only 19 acres, but it's 36 feet deep and well-oxygenated and supports a robust forage base of minnows and freshwater shrimp, rare traits for such a small lake. "It's one of those little gems," says Alan Anderson, Department of Natural Resources Finland area fisheries supervisor. The DNR stocks Benson with 2,500 splake fingerlings every year. Splake are hybrids from a female lake trout and a male brook trout. They are better suited than either lakers or brookies for this compact fishery because they grow faster than the former and get bigger than the latter. DNR surveys in Benson Lake have shown 3- and 4-year-old splake grow to be about 16 to 18 inches long and over a pound in heft. A 20-incher was found in a survey this past September.

"They can get bigger too," says Anderson. "One angler caught a 28-inch splake in Benson in the early 1970s."

Fish Dinner.

We snowshoed onto the clean, white slate of Benson and began drilling holes with a hand auger. The nonmotorized restriction on the lake includes a ban on power augers. Minnows are also prohibited, since this is a designated trout lake, so we baited our teardrop jigs with freshwater shrimp and waxworms.

Waxies turned out to be the preferred fare on this day. And Dvorak had the preferred spot. He pulled three splake through the ice before yielding his honey hole. "You wanna try?" he asked me.

I walked over, dropped a waxworm down the hole, waited 30 seconds until my foam bobber sank, and pulled a footlong splake through the ice. It was a pretty fish, with an evergreen-speckled back and red fins like its brookie father. Before the sun slipped behind the conifer ridge above the western shore, Dvorak and I had caught our limit—enough to bring home fish to our families, minus a few for dinner that night.

Back atop the ridge at our winter camp, we shoveled out about a foot of snow to locate the site's fire ring and built a blaze. Then Dvorak cleaned three fish for dinner, placing a strip of bacon inside each and dashing them with a little seasoning. He wrapped the trout in tinfoil and placed them on coals near the fire's edge to cook.

The evening chill was descending again. My cold-stiffened fingers thawed a bit when I retrieved my trout from the fire. The splake meat was rich pink, a testament to this fish's shrimp diet. It tasted sublime, rich and delectable—a four-star fish dinner from a tinfoil packet, eaten by the light of a headlamp.

Back to Paradise.

After dinner we retreated inside the stove-fired tent. My cheeks tingled from the shock of diving from cold into warmth. We joked and laughed again, but the snores came earlier after a day of exposure to winter winds. Before my eyelids shut, I lay in the dark and watched dancing orange lights on the white front wall of the tent, projected from the stove door's vent like a film to a movie screen. From somewhere in the Manitou River ravine, a wolf's howl cut the night silence. I fell asleep with a smile on my face.

I was realizing what Rutstrum wrote about when he guided clients into the snowy wilderness, the addictive allure of classic winter camping:

Having peeked momentarily into paradise below zero, their mundane lives could never again be quite the same.

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