A Year in the Wilderness: Navigating Blizzards – Week 25, Post 11

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Minnesota’s Snowbank Lake in a whiteout; Photograph by Dave Freeman

On our 176th day in the wilderness, we found ourselves staring into a blank, white canvas. From our position in the middle of frozen Snowbank Lake, no land was visible. Traveling inside a ping pong ball, our senses were heightened. The wind against our faces and the angle of the snow blowing across our skis were our only points of reference. We worked to stay on course and follow a compass bearing across the frozen surface. A persistent cold wind threw snow flakes into my face. Snow clung to my eye lashes and melted on my cheeks. Our dogs Tina, Tank, and Acorn leaned into their harnesses, intent on following Amy’s ski tracks. All signs of our presence would disappear in a few minutes, swept away by wind and snow, leaving an untrammeled white expanse in our wake.

Every few minutes I checked my compass and shouted directions into the wind, “10 degrees right” or “you’re on track” to help Amy stay on course. It is always comforting to watch the faint outline of an island or point emerge from the whiteout. The northeast corner of Harri Island appeared and I could feel my mind relax and move from navigation to broader thoughts. We were right on course, but in the swirling white it is easy to second guess yourself.

My mind wandered back five years, almost to the day. We were dogsledding across the McVicar Arm of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories. Miles from shore, caught in the teeth of a blizzard we push on through 40 mile per hour winds for hours. Drifting snow slowed our progress and reduced visibility to a hundred feet or less. The sun was setting as the faint outline of trees appeared. They signaled shelter and warmth. Our tired party set up camp by headlamp, crawled into the tent, and lit the stove. The storm continued to blow for three days while we sipped tea and baked bannock. It was a storm I hope to always remember. It left us humbled, yet stronger and eager to take on more challenges.

Moments like these are why we venture into the wilds, seeking out vast roadless tracks to explore. Rivers, foot paths, lakes, and ridge lines are the closest things we have to roads out here. When we travel into the wilderness we shed the comforts and security that civilization affords and expose ourselves to the raw power of nature’s many moods. Sometimes wilderness tests us and other times it helps us rest, reflect, and heal. When we head into wilderness we don’t know what we will encounter or how it will shape us. That is the beauty of wilderness. We have to have the courage to set out; nature will take over once we leave the roads behind.


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.