The white eye of the lake opens slowly through the trees. We walk single-file far out onto the ice, stopping to stare at the moonlit sky, at our shadows on the snow, at the dark edges of the trees. As we turn to go, we hear a sound that could be a wolf howling. We stop, holding our breath, listening. The sound, whatever it was, does not come again.
“CRRACKK.” A gunshot shatters the night. “Tree,” Schurke explains calmly. “When temperatures get this low, water inside trees can freeze, expand, and crack the trunk with a loud snap.
“Things can get pretty strange when it’s really cold,” Schurke says as we stand on thermal pads around a campfire trying to warm up before turning in. “On our North Pole trip we didn’t even need walkie-talkies to communicate a half-mile apart on the coldest, stillest days. Aluminum fuel canisters cracked, zipper heads broke like glass. Every move has to be carefully calculated to accommodate the stress limits of your gear, and you.”
Schurke pauses for dramatic effect and then says, “Watch this.” In one quick motion he grabs a cup of boiling water off the fire and tosses it into the air. With a sizzle like the fuse of a bottle rocket, the water instantly transforms into crystals of ice that settle softly on the snow at our feet.
I awaken deep in the night, too tired and too cold to look at my thermometer. In the morning it will show that sometime during the night the temperature bottomed out at -29°F. My breath has created a ring of ice on my sleeping bag. The hot water bottle I slipped inside my bag has grown cold. I reach out of my bivy sack and, with fingers as stiff as wood, clumsily ignite the stove.
Looking around at the night, I realize we will never be a winter species, we humans. But there is an undeniable beauty here, a fascination and a glimpse at another, too often overlooked, side of the wilderness.
As the water heats, I suck on a piece of hard candy and wince from the sting of cold air on my fingers. I switch off the stove and burrow into my sleeping bag, clutching the renewed warmth of the water bottle to my chest. Through the tiny opening in the hood I see the moon as white as a sliver of ice.
While I wait for the heat to flow back through my body, I close my eyes and listen. There is no sound, nothing is moving. All life has stopped, frozen, waiting out the cold. It’s so quiet, I think to myself, I can almost hear the temperature going down, dropping faster than a falling star.
For information on Paul Schurke’s winter trips contact: Wintergreen, 1101 Ring Rock Rd., Ely, MN 55731; (218) 365-6022. Or visit Wintergreen’s Web site at: www.dogsledding.com.