Surviving in the Boundary Waters: Snapshots from Winter Trek ’20


Seniors in Outdoor Adventures trek out into the Boundary Waters near the Canadian border and survive for two nights alone on frozen Seagull Lake. The nearest hospital is 5 hours away. No cell service, no heat, no running water, no electricity. Just you, the stars, and the snow.

Here are snapshots and journal entry excerpts from Campsite No. 1. Take an unfiltered look at the raw wilderness endured by the seniors.


First sunrise at Wilderness Canoe Base, our lodge near the entry point to the BWCA.


BWCA is part of the coniferous biome of northern Minnesota with stately red and white pines and fragrant balsam fir.


Group one attaches their harnesses and prepares to trek out onto Seagull Lake.


Welcome to the Boundary Waters. We were greeted by a fierce headwind. This was no joke. If you didn’t have the will to survive you could easily get snuffed out.


We had to make a small portage across land to avoid “the Narrows” a thin strip of water that never fully freezes over. Otters rely on this open water to fish even through the winter. Here, there is a high danger of falling through the ice, and in past years, 3 students have fallen in. As fast as they could, they had to strip and put on dry clothes to prevent almost instant hypothermia. All seniors had to be prepared for this at all times.


Campsite No. 1. Notice the snowshoes, essential for trekking across snowdrifts.


View outside our tent.


A curious Gray Jay investigating my drying socks.


Campsite No. 2’s latrine. Imagine taking your morning pee in a gorgeous place like this…


All water had to be sourced from Seagull Lake. Each camp brought a handheld ice ager to drill their holes for water and ice fishing. Motorized augers are not allowed due to BWCA regulations. To preserve the pristine wilderness, Leave No Trace rules seek to limit pollution. Motors are noisy, release exhaust, and fuel can spill, so they are banned.


It was paramount we boiled all lake water for at least 3 minutes to ensure we killed all the microorganisms. A parasite that lives in Seagull Lake called Giardia can cause an intestinal infection that makes you “crap your brains out,” said Sophia, our local epidemiologist. For dinner, we’d have Ramen Noodles affectionately called “Giardia Soup.”


Bonfire time. Days are short, and it gets dark quickly at dinner. Coming back, I could never take for granted a light switch that gave us light so easily.


Morning frost.


Red Fox.


No wildflowers, but you can still find color in the winter in these gorgeous Xanthoria elegans lichens on a little granite island.


Lichens as long as your arm! These Usnea cavernosa lichens have useful antibiotic properties.


Northern Whitecedar.


A massive bald eagle’s nest across from Campsite No. 2. Note the barren hilltops. This island likely witnessed a natural forest fire relatively recently. Some species of conifers, like Jack Pine, rely on the high temperatures of a fire to open up their cones and release seeds.


Wolf tracks.
Atop the Palisades, a cliff with a vast overlook of Seagull Lake.


View from the Palisades. See the little man walking in the distance? In the BWCA, there is a rule of 9: only 9 people can be within eyesight of each other from horizon to horizon.


Mr. Riordan, ODA teacher and chaperone. We met him as he was skiing around and checking in with campsites. Our main form of communication was through walkie talkies that we enjoyed filling up with useless banter.


Erik Ziegler from Group 4, the fishing boys, standing with his catch of lake trout.


If we were stranded and ran out of food, like antarctic explorers of the past, we could eat the brown, leathery rock tripe lichens that grow on boulders. Luckily we brought plenty of Ramen and beef jerky.


Waist-deep snow.


Otherworldly patterns on the lake from blustery wind gusts.


White pine at dusk. Here you truly understand how precious hours of daylight are. Night skies were clear, and we were delighted with sights of Venus, the Milky Way, Orion, and Cassiopea.


At night, group 2 bravely trekked through snowdrifts to Campsite No. 1 to pass on a torch.


Trekking back to Wilderness Canoe Base.


On the last night at the lodge, seniors played broomball under the bridge. The game was fierce and there was blood on the ice from bleeding knuckles.


View of Grand Marais harbor. Here we stopped at Sven and Olie’s pizza. Goodbye, north shore.

Each year, Ozzie and Riordan come up with a name for our big trip. Last year was the “tropical blizzard” with warm temperatures and whiteout conditions. This year, they might be dubbing it the “Perfect Trek.” The weather was gorgeous and sunny, as good as it gets; during the day it would be warm, and at night it would dip to 8 ℉. This was is balmy compared to -35 ℉ experienced by seniors on Seagull lake, the record lowest night temperature.  The Boundary Waters was mild this year, but who knows what’s in store for class of 2021.

But without all our gear and preparation, even the smallest mistakes and mishaps can be deadly. What if you fell through the ice? Or the stove didn’t work? Or your snowshoes broke? Or you fell off the palisades? This trip trained us to be mentally prepared for anything. Coming back to civilization, we had a new sense of confidence, that we survived. That we can live without ceramic bowls to pee in or cell phones or radiators. At least for a little while.