This is a never before published post of my experience I wrote about back in late 2013. I'll soon be publishing a new post about our recent adventure on this same trail.
Location: Snowbank Lake in BWCA, MN
Date: Nov 8, 2013 - Nov 10, 2013
What was planned?
Myself and three other guys, whom I’ve met through my experience with the GORUCK Challenge, were to head out of Minneapolis around 4:00 p.m. on the 8th for Ely, MN to hike around Snowbank Lake in the BWCA. Upon arriving in Ely we’d get food for all and a small game permit for one of the guys. We’d then head out toward the visitor center for the BWCA and check-in, finally setting our sights on the trailhead. Expected time to arrive at the trailhead was 9:30 p.m.
We then planned to start the trek to our first campsite and estimated we’d arrive between 12:30 and 1:00 a.m. We’d then hike the next day to campsite two, around Disappointment Lake, set up camp and then shoot back for the parking lot on Sunday. Round trip was estimated around 25-30 miles.
What actually happened?
It was my first visit to the BWCA and a trip like this had been on my want-to-do-list for years. We left Minneapolis from Rob’s house around 4, as planned. The forecast called for just a dusting of snow, nothing to take note of. As we neared Ely, the roads were getting worse and eventually the rear end of Rob’s truck kicked sideways. He handled it like a pro, recovering the fishtail all while keeping the truck on the road.
We arrived in Ely, grabbed food and a small game permit for Rob (Josh already had his) and we proceeded to the Kawishiwi Ranger Station to check-in. The driving was even slower going after we checked-in due to being on less travelled roads and the snow was still piling up. So much for that dusting they predicted... We arrived at the trailhead right around when we estimated we’d be there, even with the snow having slowed us down. We got our packs on and started up the trail.
It was beautiful being out there; the snow was great too. After a while of walking along we wanted to check where we were on the map. We realized we weren’t nearly as far as we thought we were and wouldn’t be making our estimated arrival time at the camp site. No big deal though, we’re a group that just rolls with it.
Navigating in the dark was a bit tough at times. Despite having our headlamps on we were unsure where the trail went a few times. Once, we came to a beaver dam and weren’t sure which way to go. We knew the general direction but couldn’t find a way to get there. We walked down what we thought was a trail for about 20 yards and realized that couldn’t be it and turned around, back to the beaver dam. After a bit of deliberation, we decided to investigate it. Since it was snowing, dark, narrow, a bit slippery and unstable, with water on either side, three of us stayed back while Rob went across. He made it to the other side just fine but that’s when I was able to see what was in front of him. There was a large rock wall, about 20 feet tall and at an 80° angle.
Rob started to climb the rock face with his pack on despite my calls that it probably wasn’t a great idea, pack or no pack. He got to the top and walked off a little bit. We heard him call that it sure looked like a trail up there. So we decided to follow him. I was next up, then Torry and finally Josh. We walked down the newly discovered trail to a little opening in the woods. We looked around there for a government box (toilet) and firepit but didn’t locate either and decided that we weren’t to camp yet. The trek would continue for a bit longer. As time went on and it got later and later, we were all thinking about how tiring this weekend was going to be since it was already late and we had an early departure the next day to make it to our next campsite. We decided that instead of doing the entire planned route, we’d get to camp and hang out there until Sunday. The group's morale increased upon this decision.
We eventually found camp at around 4 a.m. Torry and I were a bit cold. Torry because, for some reason, decided to wear a mostly cotton sweatshirt and pants with cotton and me because I accidentally slipped at one point and my foot went into some beaver dam runoff. Torry and I started a fire while the other two set up the two tents. We warmed up by the fire and then went to bed.
Not much happened on Saturday and before we knew it, it was ten at night. During the day we collected some water and firewood, made a lot of bacon and coffee and ate our meals. Mostly we just hung out around the fire since it was a mix of raining and snowing all day.
We woke on Sunday to shotguns going off in the distance from what sounded like all directions due to hunting season opener being that weekend. As you can see in the photo above, we all were wearing blaze orange. During our hike out we were yelling, “HUMAN!,” in order to avoid being shot at by any jumpy hunters. If any of them heard us, they probably hated it.
The hike out was much easier than in, for a few obvious reasons. We could clearly see the surroundings and it wasn’t snowing anymore.
After arriving at the car, we drove to a bar/restaurant in Ely that only sells beer that they brew. Everyone but me got a flight of all their beers and I stuck with… I forget what it was. Good though!
What was right or wrong with what happened?
We weren’t expecting the snow and rain that we ended up getting. Luckily we were prepared, gear and clothing wise to be comfortable. The darkness and snow made our hike in a lot slower than we planned for but we rolled with it and just stayed put instead of doing the whole hike.
This was an awesome trip with an awesome group of guys. We’ve decided to do a rematch sometime this spring and actually do the hike around the lake.