Dave and Amy Freeman walk across Knife Lake as Tank, a sled dog, pulls their supplies.
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Tank easily pulls the Freeman's 19 foot canoe loaded with several hundred pounds of food and equipment across the ice on Knife Lake. Photo by Dave Freeman
Dave and Amy Freeman walk across Knife Lake as Tank, a sled dog, pulls their supplies.

A Year in the Wilderness: Navigating Spring Ice – Week 30, Post 14

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Amy and Dave Freeman drive their canoe onto thin ice as they transition from paddling to pulling their canoe; Photograph by Dave Freeman

It feels like a switch was flipped signaling the end of winter. Two days after being pinned in our tent by snow and 30-mile-per-hour winds, we found ourselves lounging in the sun. We gazed down Knife Lake past Isle of the Pines and on to the West where generations of Native Americans, voyageurs, and now modern canoeists have unloaded their canoes on their way west along a watery wilderness highway which has been in continuous use for centuries.

When we climbed to the top of Thunder Point, Knife Lake was covered in a soft blanket of snow. Over several hours we watched pools of slush form on the lake’s surface, replacing the shiny white with a dull gray. Once the layer of reflective white melts away, the sun’s rays are able to melt the remaining snow and ice more quickly. Perched hundreds of feet above the lake was an excellent place to watch this transition unfold.

Immersed in the calm, silent wilderness, we were totally alone. The only human sign was the narrow ribbon in the melting snow that we had made as we skied across the canvas of white stretching to the horizon. By the end of the day only patches of snow remained in the shadows, protected from the sun.

The wilderness has coming alive. We have seen the first butterflies of the season, along with mosquitoes. The first mosquitoes to emerge are big and slow. I like to think this is nature’s way of letting us practice swatting before the swarms arrive in about a month. Each morning the rapid, labored wing beats and the familiar quack of ducks as they whiz by greet us as dawn approaches. A chorus of gulls has been making a racket each morning and the woodpeckers are hammering away in the distance.

To negotiate sections of thin ice and open water we tried a new sport; we call it “Boundary Waters bobsledding.” The temperature soared to 80 degrees, and we took advantage of the glorious day to travel down to Portage Lake. We were able to paddle about a quarter of a mile in the narrows near Isle of Pines. To safely bypass the thin ice at the transition between water and ice, we ran across the ice with our hands on the gunwales. As we approach the ice edge, the bow paddler jumps in the canoe and then as the bow slides into the water, the stern paddler jumps in. To reach the solid ice on the other side we paddle as hard as we can and slide right up onto the ice like a seal. The bow paddler gets out first and pulls the canoe farther onto safe ice and then the stern paddler can hop out.

We repeated this routine several times while negotiating the narrows and accessing the portage from Knife into Portage Lake. The ice on Portage Lake was eight inches thick, but very degraded and would barely hold my weight. It’s important to note that we are wearing drysuits and PFDs, always carry throw ropes and ice picks, and we are drawing on many years of experience assessing ice conditions.

Yesterday we packed up camp and hauled our canoe loaded with skis, toboggan, and mountain of food and equipment down Knife Lake to the portage into Bonnie Lake. As we crested the hill overlooking Bonnie, open water stretched across the lake and a loon floated quietly in the calm water. Loading the canoe and figuring out how to get all of our stuff, plus Amy, Tank, and me in was a bit of a jigsaw puzzle. We found that by wedging/lashing our Black River Sled toboggan under our seats, we can portage the canoe with the toboggan left inside!

We paddled, portaged, and pushed our way though the ice across Bonnie Lake and Spoon Lake. Between our unusually large assortment of gear that we are carrying during the shoulder season and the challenge of pushing our way though the remaining patches of ice, it was a hard day–but it felt great to paddle and travel.

The haunting cry of a loon echoing across the wilderness filled me with joy at dawn this morning. In late November we said goodbye to the last loon of the season. Back then, their call echoed across Knife Lake until many of the smaller lakes were frozen. As the smaller lakes open up, the loons are returning along with many of the other birds. Ducks and geese can walk around on the ice and on land. However, a loon’s feet are farther back on its body. This adaptation is great for swimming and diving, but it also means that they can only land and take flight from open water. Their arrival is a clear sign that the paddling season is about to begin in earnest.


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.