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Dave Freeman loads the canoe at dawn on the ice in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Photo by: Dave Freeman

A Year in the Wilderness: Hauling Over Thin Ice – Week 10, Post #5

The cold stung my face as I opened the tent and stepped into the inky blackness. Stars dotted the sky and the ice sang as it grew, emitting low muffled, pulsing groans into the still night air. I grabbed the axe and headed down to the lake. My headlamp’s narrow beam illuminated wolf tracks on the trail. A pack of wolves had broken the silence hours before with loud howls and barks. We guessed they were less than a hundred yards from our tent. They sounded like a team of sled dogs howling from their beds on the edge of our camp, a sound we have heard hundreds of times, but this time it wasn’t our dog team. We have never heard wolves so close before and as I walked along I wondered if they were still nearby.

My axe revealed two inches of clear ice, which is thin, but enough to hold our weight if we were careful. I returned to the tent with the news and we decided to try traveling over the ice. We munched on Clif Bars as we quickly packed up camp; no time for coffee and a leisurely breakfast. The forecast called for the temperature to jump nearly 30 degrees to a high of 45 degrees over the next seven hours. We needed to travel early before the ice started to soften.

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Dave and Amy Freeman haul their canoe filled with several hundred pounds of food and equipment across Ensign Lake on day 73 of their year in the Wilderness. Photo by: Dave Freeman

A red glow on the horizon allowed us to switch off our headlamps as we loaded our canoe on Vera Lake’s frozen surface. We leaned into our harnesses to pull the canoe (loaded with several hundred pounds of food and equipment) across the ice for the first time. We moved carefully, spacing ourselves far apart do distribute our weight. We stopped often to chop a hole in the ice with our axe to check the thickness.

A black, undulating surface signaled open water over in the deepest part of the lake. The crux was rounding a point where the ice was slightly thinner. Test holes showed there was just enough ice off the point to hold us, but thick ice lay in the bay beyond. We were wearing our drysuits and lifejackets. We also carried icepicks and safety ropes to minimize the risk of traveling over the marginal ice, but pulling the canoe over the thin ice was like being on the sharp end. We couldn’t stop in the crux; once we committed, we had to keep moving forward to the thicker ice that lay ahead. Small cracks formed in the 1/2 inch layer of rotten ice covering the good ice with every step. We quickly moved past the thin ice and took a break in the bay beyond the point.

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Amy Freeman hauls their 19-foot kevlar Wenonah canoe while Dave runs ahead to check the ice. Photo by: Dave Freeman

It felt good to walk along, traveling in a new way. We have traveled over the ice for thousands of miles with dog teams, but we had never hauled a canoe over the ice before. We had been wondering for several months what it would be like, talking with Will Steger and a handful of others who had done it before. Once the canoe was moving, it slid over the ice relatively easily, but we both had to lunge into our harnesses to get the canoe moving. When we reached the west end of Vera we hugged and laughed, knowing that ice ahead of us on Ensign Lake would likely be thicker and we could let our guard down a little. We unloaded the canoe and hauled our loads across the portage to Ensign.

Around 2 o’clock we were hot and tired from hauling. We sat down on the ice, leaned up against the canoe, and had lunch. We laughed and joked about our lunch spot. It was a fun day, full of new things. As the sun began to set, we pulled up to a campsite on the west end of Ensign Lake. We were tired, but happy to have traveled safely over the ice.

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The Dave and Amy Freeman stop for lunch on the ice. Photo by: Dave Freeman

Wilderness is a wonderful teacher. Even after decades of exploring the Boundary Waters, there is still so much we can learn from this special place—about ourselves and the Earth. Many polar explorers like Will Steger, Ann Bancroft, Paul Schurke, Lonnie Dupre, Tyler Fish, John Huston, Eric Larsen, and countless other adventurers honed their skills right here in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. We need to continue to protect wild places like the Boundary Waters to ensure these teaching and testing grounds remain for future generations.


Amy and Dave FreemanAmy and Dave FreemanAmy and Dave FreemanAmy and Dave Freeman, 2014 Adventurers of the Year, are spending 365 days in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to call attention to the threats that a series of proposed sulfide-ore copper mines pose to our nation’s most popular wilderness. They are sharing their Wilderness Adventures through regular blog posts throughout their Year in the Wilderness right here on the Beyond the Edge blog. Learn more about protecting the Boundary Waters, follow them@freemanexplore, and connect kids with the adventure through the Wilderness Classroom.