-30 F in the BWCAW
Read Caption
Amy Freeman tosses boiling water into the air on a -30 F morning in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Photo by: Nate Ptacek
-30 F in the BWCAW

A Year in the Wilderness: What Cold Can Teach Us – Week 23, Post 10

View Images
Acorn, Tina, and Tank pull the Freeman’s toboggans into a biting headwind; Photograph by Peter Schurke

Snow swirled across the lake with every frigid gust as we loaded our toboggans in the shelter of our campsite nestled in a thick stand of red pines. The dogs barked and lunged with excitement as we prepared to leave our protected campsite and head north into the biting wind. “Let’s go dogs, let’s go,” and the toboggans surged forward. I cinched my parka to protect my face and my view of the world quickly diminished to the snow blowing across my skis.

In the afternoon we rested in the sun, sheltered from the wind. After being buffeted by the wind all morning, the sun hitting my unprotected face felt glorious. We ate lunch and rested until our toes told us it was time to move on. For a week the temperature had rarely risen above zero, but the sun was inching higher in the sky, it’s rays becoming more powerful with each passing day.

View Images
A cold, moonless night on Gun Lake, deep in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness;  Photograph by Dave Freeman

After dark I walked out onto the lake to fetch a pot-full of water from our ice hole before crawling into my sleeping bag. The cold, clear, moonless night made the stars feel close enough to touch. The warmth and light that our tent provides takes on new importance in the deep cold. It is humbling to realize how vulnerable we are. We can’t just curl up in the snow like the wolves or find a protected roost and puff up our feathers like a raven. With considerable effort we are comfortable out here, but the wilderness is their home. We are only visitors. The cold penetrated my clothing and frost clung to my beard. I stood in the silence gazing upwards until my fingers began to throb. It had to be -20F and the night was just beginning.

In the morning twilight I quickly shoved the kindling prepared the night before into the wood stove, lit the fire and dove back into by bag to wait for the fire to take hold. As the sun rose we made a couple steaming cups of strong coffee and took the remaining boiling water outside to check the temperature. Amy threw a cup of boiling water over her head, a steaming arc filled the air. All the water sublimated before reaching the ground, sure enough it was -30 F.

Cold is a wonderful teacher. Cold strips away the noise in our lives and allows us to appreciate life’s unrefined pleasures—shelter, warmth, food, companionship. The winter wilderness makes the importance of these simple needs starkly evident to those of us lucky enough to feel its ambivalent power.


Amy 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.