Dealing with Defeat

It took 6 days for the Minnesota winter to crush me. People had warned me that it was likely to be cold but I’d insisted on rushing headlong into the worst of it, feeling only confidence at the outset. The temperature as I left Fergus Falls, Minnesota hovered at -11 (also the daily high) and all my fingers had frostbite by the time I crawled in a hastily-constructed snow shelter for the night. The low reached about -20 that night and it would be 3 days before I’d see 0 degrees.

To restate my last couple of blog entries, I was setting out to test my ability to cope with extreme cold while immersed in it day and night. I wanted to see just how long I could stay out there. I would pull my sled eastward on some days and fish through the ice on others. And my most far-fetched goal was to perhaps cross Minnesota by spring time, arriving on the shore of Lake Superior. The actual walk would prove to be far more short lived.

One significant aspect of my endeavor was to test equipment in temperatures that just couldn’t be found in the state of Pennsylvania. Some of that equipment performed well while some contributed to my ultimate abandonment of the Minnesotan snow fields. I bought a sled-mounted collapsible ice fishing shelter at Fergus Falls to pull all my gear in, a tool few would have chosen for a mission like this. And the sled, by Shappel, performed very well for me, was large enough for all my gear and kept the breeze off me during my one day of fishing. I carried an old zero degree bag and a 30 degree bag to line it. This was warm enough inside my snow shelters but ice build-up on the outer bag was difficult to deal with in the extreme cold. I carried one of my old zip stoves to cook on and melt snow for water but, although the stove was capable of doing what I needed, it took a very long time with the zip stove. I like a wood-burning stove but will need something faster and hotter burning next time around. My two types of mittens were more than adequate but did not work well with the light-weight gloves I carried. This will need work before plunging back into sub-zero temp.’s.

And what was really so difficult that I made the decision to get out after just 6 days? Well, in part, I’d have to say that you couldn’t really truly know without being there, like all tough survival situations. And the simple answer is just “cold”. Operating below ten below offers special challenges such as very short windows in which to use your fingers for delicate matters before returning them to the mittens. Extreme cold keeps you awake at night as you wonder whether your toes are really becoming frostbitten inside the bag. But the difficulties that piled up day by day didn’t end with the sheer cold but extended to difficulties with equipment such as growing ice build-up on things like the sleeping bags. Having the wrong stove along contributed more than anything else to the decision to abort. The little zip stove motor wasn’t going to last a whole lot longer when I finally gave it up. It was forced to run for literally hours a day to do my cooking (a huge number of calories were required) and then to melt piles of snow and bring the water almost to the boiling point. I still love the zip stove but would choose a fuel-cylinder stove, perhaps white gas, for next time. The time required to obtain drinking water proved critical – I rarely got enough water during the week I was out.

Then too, there were certain joys that could only have been found alone in the western Minnesota winter. And I really was alone – few Minnesotans were outside – it was really that cold. I spent a few days on a lake that seemed to be my own private lake; I didn’t have to share it with anyone at all. There weren’t even many animals on the move. A few woodpeckers, a few chickadees and the irrepressible coyotes at night. There was even a certain joy that came from knowing that I was venturing out across a part of the country I’d never touched before, a place ripe for exploration with unknown challenges and rewards waiting around each bend of the trail. I walked across my lake in moonlight long after sundown to fetch water from a warm spring I’d found, listening to coyotes and relishing my little place in the north country, high in the headwaters of Canada’s great Nelson River. I squeezed into my quinzee snow shelter a little later on a matt of reeds where I’d be warm enough, safe from the coyotes or the wolves, whichever stalked my lake shore.

So, yes, 6 days was a let-down as compared my projected 2 to 3 months. But I did achieve the goal of testing my limits. I tested gear too. And I know that after I headed east again, western Minnesota did warm back to well-above zero and this got me thinking: did I really miss out by leaving prematurely, before comfortable winter temp.’s prevailed? Or did I learn and experience everything I most needed to by exposing myself to the coldest cold possible for as long as I could take it?

I certainly owe gratitude to a few fine Minnesotans, mostly associated with the North Country Trail, who helped me get started (and helped me recover a few days later). First among these would be Matt Davis who was my initial contact in MN. He made all the necessary connections. Ron and Terry Spangler gave me a nice place to spend my first MN night and a warm place to pack the sled as well as a safe spot to leave the car and a lot of good advice. Allan and Pam Schroden came to my rescue when it was time to give it up and nursed me back to health over 24 hours or so. Again, much good trail talk and advice ensued. Thanks also to the Josts of Speedy Worm, Alexandria, MN, who helped out with bait, all of which froze while resting beside me overnight in my quinzee. Also, thanks to a young man I know only as “Brent” who brought me hot water from his nearby home along with a gracious helping of deer jerky.

I may not be done with Minnesota. There’ll be more cold months next year and I might be found one icy day pulling a sled north from Fergus Falls along a deserted road of snowmobile trail, putting things to the test once again. It’s just what I do.

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