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.
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“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.”
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.
Humans, on the other hand, aren’t cut out for winter. We cope by avoiding it or by using technology to ward off its worst. Standing in the trees, thinking of palm trees and chocolate, I hear voices along the river. I leave the tracks and ski back to meet the others.
In a sheltered bay we stop to set up camp. The miles and the cold have taken their toll. The simple act of stamping out tent sites with snowshoes becomes a difficult chore, each of my feet feeling as if it’s encased in concrete. I am spent. Chilled. I can feel my body slowing down. I should have kept moving instead of taking a break earlier, maybe slipped on another layer. I should have taken some of the hard candy Schurke offered us repeatedly along the trail. I’m learning a lesson the hard way.
“The cold is an outstanding teacher,” Schurke had told us. “In the summer, you can bring all the wrong gear, do all the wrong things, and still probably have a pretty good time. In winter, you don’t have that luxury. The game of truth or consequences is never more clear than in the deep cold.”
What I need is dry, warm clothing and a meal. I rummage through my backpack-long underwear tops and bottoms, fleece pants and jacket, wind pants, a heavy parka, overmitt gloves with liners, a thick hat, hood, and new felt inserts for my pac boots-and head over to the campfire where dinner is already started.
A 150-pound person sitting on the couch all day burns about 1,600 calories. The National Outdoor Leadership School recommends that a person skiing, snowshoeing, or winter hiking take in 5,000 calories a day. “That is another of the great joys of winter camping,” Schurke says. “Eating!”
Winter menu-planning is like building a fire in your belly, he tells us. “You start with tinder, foods that your body burns quickly and that can give you a quick boost of energy, such as candy. You should always have a few pieces of candy in your pocket for during the day. Then you add kindling-complex carbohydrates, things that fill you up and burn more slowly, like grains, granola, breads. Those are good things for trail lunches. Dinner should be substantial, heavy in fat and protein. Think of that as your cordwood, something to burn slowly and keep you warm all night.”
Steaming cups of thick soup. Shrimp in a hearty cream sauce over pasta. A sweet, gooey dessert. More hot drinks. With each sip and each bite, I feel myself being warmed from within, coming back to life. There is laughter around the campfire. The stars grow brighter in the blue-black sky. I find myself unzipping the hood of my parka just a bit, the fire inside once again burning hot.
With each breath my tongue tingles, as if I am inhaling peppermint. If I leave my gloves off for more than a few seconds, I feel icy pinpricks in the tips of my fingers. The moonlight on the snow is a soft blue with a thin shimmer of the Northern Lights beginning to play among the stars.
We put on snowshoes and leave camp in search of a small lake just over this ridge. We talk of finding wolf tracks and listening for howls, but we are moving just to be moving really, staying warm by staying active. Still, with dinner done it is hard not to think of the sleeping bag or a cup of something warm around the fire.
“We spend 90 percent of our lives in our ‘comfort range,'” Schurke says, as if he knows what I am thinking. “But subject yourself to things that expand your comfort range and your whole realm of being expands. Comfort and pleasure are directly balanced by pain and inconvenience. There is sheer ecstasy in a wilderness setting after a long day, feeling hot chocolate go down the hatch, hearing wolves howl, seeing the Northern Lights. All of it erases the memory of any hardship.”
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.