Welcome to the BWCAW blog of Ely Outfitting Company and Boundary Waters Guide Service!

See our websites at ElyOutfittingCompany.com and BoundaryWatersGuideService.com.

We are a Boundary Waters canoe trip outfitter, Quetico outfitter, and guide service in Ely, Minnesota. This Boundary Waters blog shares photos, stories, humor, skills, and naturalist insights from guiding in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW).

Most entries are from our founder and head guide, Jason Zabokrtsky. He is the Boundary Waters Blogger.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Building a Quinzee Snow Shelter

The dogsled camping group this week is game for just about anything. I really like their eagerness to try new things.

Today the whole group joined in to build a traditional snow shelter called a quinzee. The above photo shows our finished product.

A quinzee is made by hollowing out a pile of settled snow. It is much warmer than a tent, and can be used for winter camping, survival, or just plain fun.

Quinzee construction is a somewhat time consuming and labor intensive process. Here's how.

Shovel a pile of snow six to ten feet high and long enough for two or three people to sleep side by side. A big scoop shovel works well. The below photo shows Fran, a guest from the United Kingdom, scooping snow for the quinzee.

Ideally flip the loose snow over as you shovel it to mix snow of different temperatures. Don't pack it down. Instead, once it's piled, let it sit for a few hours. A process called "sintering" occurs that makes even light fluffy snow firm up while you wait. The below photos show's Fran's husband, Gareth, putting some final scoops on the mound.

Before you walk away from the pile, insert a couple dozen ten inch long sticks into the walls and ceiling areas of the mound. These will be your guides to stop digging out the interior so you don't go through the walls when digging it out. That's what Jen (Minneapolis) is doing below.

When you return to hollow out the inside of the mound, be ready to get wet. You will be working up a sweat shoveling out the snow and working on your hands, knees, and belly getting coated with snow that melts and soaks your clothes.

Start by digging a door on the downwind side. Make it just big enough to crawl through, and then start hollowing out the inside. It helps to have one person inside scooping snow toward the entry, and another person scooping it aside.

As you hollow out the interior, dome the ceiling and smooth the interior snow to prevent dripping. When you hit the gauge sticks you inserted, stop digging in that area. This will ensure your walls are about a foot thick. Be mindful that a smaller space will be warmer and that room to sit up but not stand is adequate. You also may elevate a couple sleeping platforms so the coolest air sinks down and out the entry.

Adequate ventilation is also important. Make a small vent hole in the ceiling and keep it clear. You may put a pack over the entry, but don't seal it too tightly.

It's a good idea to bring a tarp for the sleeping platforms and floor, to help stay dry.

While building and using your quinzee, you will also want to use some precautions. Build the quinzee with someone for safety. There is a danger of collapse if you hollow too far through the walls, or someone walks on top. If you hollow out the inside while on your knees rather than your back, then you have a better chance of digging yourself out in the event of a collapse. Finally, keep a digging utensil with you as a precaution while inside.

Though it takes time and effort, a quinzee ensures a warmer night in our winter wilderness. It also makes for happy campers, like Charles and Catherine from New York City, above.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Dog food?

My first dogsled camping trip of the season launched this week. It is four days and three nights on trail.

This morning around the campfire Jen (a guest from Minneapolis) peaks into the breakfast pot and says:
"Hhmm. That looks delicious. Uh, this may sound awful, but when I first saw that
I thought it was dog food."
We both got a good laugh out of the observation. And, after some butter, fruit and brown sugar mix-ins, people agreed the oatmeal tasted pretty good. It also helped keep us warm on trail today.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Boundary Waters Bus

Before restrictions on motors in the BWCAW, land-based motorized vehicles made their way into some remote places.

For example, this old International Harvester bus transported passengers across the Four Mile Portage between Fall Lake and Hoist Bay on Basswood Lake. The passengers would be either starting a canoe trip or going to one of the Basswood resorts.

This bus now sits in the woods near Bear Island River Road outside of Ely, rusting and entombed in a grove of saplings. The below photo shows the driver's side by the back fender. Although it is painted over, you can make out the service being marketed: Canoe Trips.

Today, paddlers can still obtain motorboat tows on Basswood Lake, but motorized land transport is no longer allowed over the Four Mile Portage. Instead of a road for buses, the Four Mile Portage today is overgrown (yet walkable) and partially flooded.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Pine Marten on the Hunt

This frisky Pine Marten is hanging around the cabin, eating birdseed from the feeders and chasing wildlife. I photographed him today.

Recently I watched him chase a Red Squirrel up a spruce tree, and then give up on the chase to await an easier ambush. Then I spotted him bounding through the fresh snow after a Snowshoe Hare. It didn't look like he had a good chance at running the rabbit down either.

But, the local critters know the Pine Marten is on the hunt. The squirrels are being particularly cautious around the bird feeders. They are staying in the trees, hopping from branch to branch rather than moving through the snow where they'd be easier prey.

Pine Marten are typically chocolate-brown, have a golden throat patch, and a 12 to 18 inch body followed by a seven to ten inch tail. They are smaller than the related fisher (30-47 inches long, including tail). As omnivores, they subsist on Red-backed Voles, squirrels, rabbits, mice, chipmunks, birds, insects, seeds, worms, and berries. They reportedly particularly like raspberries. Pine Marten are excellent climbers, freely jump between trees, and can rotate their back hips to run headfirst down a tree trunk.

They are active all year. In winter, you may see their paw prints in the snow. Their tracks are less than two inches wide and show five toe pads around a rounded heel pad.

The Pine Marten stick to high ground and loathe water that mats their unoiled fur. In summer, you may seem them on portages. However, the brown cat-size creature dancing along the shoreline rocks is more likely to be its water-loving relative with a contrasting white throat patch, the Mink.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Last Boat Ride of 2009

Most folks had their motorboats winterized by the end of October. Virtually all other boats were tucked away by mid-November. But, this photo shows how one motorboater can lay claim to the title of last boater on Shagawa Lake in 2009.

To say the least, it's unusual to be boating on an ice-covered lake. But that's what happened here. Someone used the Shagawa Lake landing for its intended summertime purpose near Grand Ely Lodge on the edge of Ely today.

Shagawa Lake was open water yesterday, and froze over night. This morning the sound of a boat crashing through ice resonated all the way to the Grand Ely, and people peaked out the window at the sight of a motorboat breaking its way through an apparently fully iced-over Shagawa Lake.

I don't know why the boat was out there, but some have speculated that the boat may have been retrieving nets from netting whitefish, or maybe he just wanted the title of last boat on Shagawa 2009.