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Winter silence in the BWCAW

Jeff Larson (left) of Cook and Mark Hansen of Grand Marais ski across Saganaga Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness north of Grand Marais during a winter camping trip in early March. Hansen was pulling a sled with his winter camping gear, including a double-walled tent and a woodstove.

ON SAGANAGA LAKE, NORTH OF GRAND MARAIS -- We have done this the other way.

We have marched eight or 12 or 18 miles into the bush. We have made the multi-day slog on snowshoes or skis.

We have gone in January and February and watched the mercury pool at the bottom of the bulb. We have endured the deep dark of those early-winter days when the light oozes out of the west by 4:30 p.m.

Not this time.

It was Jeff Larson of Cook who began making sense when we were talking about a trip back in January. No, he said. Not January.

"February?" I had asked.

Silence from his end of the line.

March, he said.

And not six miles or eight miles or 12 miles down the trail.

Four, he said.

Which is why the two of us were standing on a bay of Saganaga Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness on a recent March afternoon. We were just a 90-minute ski from the public landing, basking in the sun with the temperature pushing 50 degrees.

Fifty degrees? Would this even qualify as winter camping?

Larson's canvas tent was snugged beneath the white pines on an island camp, a woodstove chimney poking out one wall. And we weren't thinking about moving the tent during the next three or four days. We were staying put.

I twitched the airplane jig that was dancing 40 feet beneath the ice, a slice of cisco impaled on its ample hook. I wanted a lake trout.

But that wasn't happening at the moment. What was happening was silence. Deep, white, horizon-to-horizon silence. Once in a while, the tapping of a woodpecker from far down the lake. Now and then, the crazy ga-looping raven call. But mostly, silence rolling to forever and sunlight shrinking the snowpack.

Larson had been right.

Go late. Go short.

Low traffic

Down the lake, a small form appeared, dark against the snow. It was Mark Hansen of Grand Marais, headed our way.

As winter trips go, this one was a bit syncopated. Larson arrived on a Tuesday, solo. I came in on a Thursday, solo. Hansen arrived on Friday, also alone. We departed at intervals, too. But for two or three days in the middle, we all immersed ourselves in the silence.

This canoe-country wilderness is a million acres of lakes and rivers and forest. It's reasonably quiet in the summer, even with 250,000 visitors dispersing to their favorite lakes.From January through March, only about 2,600 people enter the wilderness.

On Saganaga, snowmobile travel is permitted along a corridor trail leading to the Canadian side of the lake. We were happy to share the lake with snowmobilers, and we heard them only when the wind was right. By evening, all was quiet.

There are two kinds of quiet up here, Larson said.

"It's as much about quieting yourself as it is hearing little sounds like birds, because we have internal noise," said Larson, 60. "You can't know yourself until you get rid of that. It's a good thing to let yourself get there."

Touring the neighborhood

Despite fishing parts of three days, I failed to land a lake trout. I had two of them on, both right up to the hole, but I lost them both. Sad. As letdown goes, it's difficult to top the feeling you get holding the end of a fishing line where a trout recently throbbed and danced.

I talked to a couple of other anglers down the lake on my way out. Despite drilling a lot of holes, their party had landed only a whitefish and an eelpout.

I felt only marginally better.

Toward sunset that second day, Larson and I skied down the lake, over a neck of land into a neighboring bay. We crossed the long, swooping tracks of two otters and, later, the tracks of three wolves traveling together.

Unpeopled now, the country seemed much more expansive than in summer. It was easy to feel as if we were no more significant than the otters and the wolves, that we were just passing through the country they called home.

In the tent

That night, the three of us gathered in Larson's tent. Cool, if not cold, had settled over the land and lakes. A soft breeze set the pines to whispering outside. Our supper warmed in a pot of hot water atop the woodstove. Supper was a zip-top bag full of ground bison, mashed potatoes, peas and corn.

Two candles flickered in a tin on the floor of the tent, casting a yellow glow around the 7-by-9-foot living space. Pots of water pinged and murmured on the stove.

One story led to another. Hansen, 56, was talking about a "railroad bicycle" he fashioned as a kid in Onamia, Minn. With a neighbor's help, he customized a bike with a steel bracket and two canted lawn-mower tires to grip the rail. That's how he got to town from his home in the country.

He has never stopped making things. He made, from birch, the skis that carried him to this camp. He made his bindings. He made his Inuit-style komatik sled. He made two camp chairs. He made his tent. He made his windbreaker and his wind pants.

The bison was ready now. Larson spooned thick globs of the viscous mixture into our bowls. We sat back and shoveled in the next day's calories.

I asked Larson, as we dropped off to sleep that night, how many roads he figured lay between our camp and the North Pole.

He didn't answer, and I thought he might have been asleep, but he was just pondering.

"Four, I'd say," came his eventual answer.

No wonder it was so quiet up here.