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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.
Photo by Layne Kennedy

Paul Schurke

Like Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Schurke is a man who knows a thing or two about deep cold. In 1986 he and Will Steger led the first unsupported journey to the North Pole since Robert Peary made the trip in 1909. Steger and Schurke encountered temperatures as low as -70°F and contended with sleeping bags that accumulated 60 pounds of frost from frozen breath and body vapor. In 1989 he led the Bering Bridge Expedition, a joint Soviet-American dogsled and ski trip that crossed 1,200 miles of Alaska and Siberia in an attempt to melt the “Ice Curtain” and establish an international peace park. That trip featured shifting block ice, white-out conditions, profound cold, and winds so strong that at times expedition members were blown two ski strides backward for each one they moved forward.

It’s a safe bet that between Schurke’s Arctic ramblings, 18 winters of guiding in the Boundary Waters, and miscellaneous other trips into the coldest regions of the world, he has spent more nights outside in below zero temperatures than just about anyone alive. Judging from the sting of cold on the tips of my fingers, and from the blue sky above, he’s about to spend a few more.


Paul Schurke looks the part of an arctic explorer, with his chiseled Norwegian profile and ice-blue eyes. He is at home in the cold and he sincerely thinks the rest of us should be too.

“Most folks are conditioned to see winter wilderness trips as an exercise in survival,” he says. “We show them a more positive way to look at it. We stress rock-bottom essentials to staying warm and safe in the winter environment–things like layering, choosing the right foods, making sure you have the right gear. Once we prove they can stay safe and warm, people start to see beyond their fears and open up to just how beautiful the winter woods can be.”

One of the beauties of the winter woods lies in its solitude. At a spot where Farm Lake narrows to the Kawishiwi River, our group of skiers crosses an invisible boundary and slides into the Boundary Waters. The snow ahead is unbroken, shining like diamonds with each turn of the head. The forest is silent. Four months from now the scene will be altogether different. Lakes will echo with voices and blaze with the orange of lifejackets and glitter of aluminum canoes. The Boundary Waters is far and away the busiest wilderness area in the country, and all but a handful of those visitors arrive in the warm-weather months. During that short season, permits are hard to come by and campsites are fought over. But now, we have it all to ourselves.

Without a word, we pick up the pace and plunge forward toward a horizon that seems as fresh and new as last night’s snow.


The sun is noticeably lower; it tangles in the tallest pines and throws picket-fence shadows through the birches. My skin crawls with goosebumps, so I slip on a fleece jacket, shiver once, then ski on. At a bend in the river I come across a set of tracks in the snow. Moose. They wind along the riverbank we’re following, then swing off into the brush. Since I’m ahead of the others, I turn and follow the deep-set tracks behind the low-lying branches of a hemlock. I notice that it actually feels warmer behind this windbreak. James Halfpenny, author of Winter: An Ecological Handbook ($16.95, Johnson Books, 800-258-5830), would classify this refuge as a “microclimate,” a pocket of warmth or dryness created by tree cover, the lay of the land, or the angle to the sun. Wildlife rely on these to survive winter. Halfpenny calculates that a moose bedding down in an open meadow on a 23°F night would lose about 455 calories per hour, or the caloric equivalent of about 22 Snickers candy bars during a 14-hour night. By moving into a stand of trees where there is less wind and a canopy of branches to contain body heat, the moose can cut its energy loss to the equivalent of 4.5 Snickers bars.

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