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December 1997

Paul Schurke: Chillin’ With The Iceman

Your odds of surviving, much less enjoying, a -30°F night in the woods rate right up there with a snowball's chance in you-know-where. That is, unless you make friends with a guy they call The Iceman.


“Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Apsley Cherry-Garrard.” I say it over and over, the words beating rhythm for my skis. Besides being a fine kick-and-glide mantra, Apsley Cherry-Garrard also was the name of a British explorer and author of The Worst Journey In the World. In that classic of arctic adventure, he describes a “very bad night” spent in Antarctica when the temperature dipped to -69°F: “Our breath crackled as it froze. All my teeth, the nerves of which had been killed, split to pieces in my mouth.”

I run my tongue over my teeth. All accounted for. No real surprise there; after all, the temperature is above 0°F and downright balmy. As we ski across Farm Lake in Superior National Forest, the wan sunlight even bears a trace of warmth. For early morning in northeast Minnesota, in February, this is about as good as it gets. Still, there’s something sinister about that cobalt blue sky. “If it stays this clear,” trip leader Paul Schurke proclaimed just before we set out, “it’s going to get very, very c-c-c-cold.”

I’m secretly hoping it does. Cold, or rather the desire to stay warm in cold, is the reason I’ve come to the outskirts of Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in the dead of winter. I’m enrolled in a cold-weather survival course, a kind of Winter 101, offered by Wintergreen, Schurke’s outfitting company. I figure if I can learn to make it comfortably through three days of camping here,

I can make it anywhere. Northeast Minnesota justifiably has been labeled the “icebox of the nation.” Fifty times last year the lowest temperatures in the continental United States were recorded here-20, 30, even 60 below zero.

In cold of that magnitude, sound travels improbable distances. Ridgelines a day’s walk away seem close enough to touch. Even a familiar stretch of backcountry can seem wilder, as if winter weren’t simply a separate season but a separate reality. Making your way through a bitter-cold landscape is, in Schurke’s estimation, “like being on another planet.”

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