The on-line journal of travel and adventure in the undiscovered season.
Minnesota/Wisconsin Backcountry Skiing
Skiing on Trak Bushwackers with Berwin bindings and Steger mukluks in -5 degree weather. Sand Dunes State Forest, Zimmerman, MN
The Backcountry Skier in the Land of 10,000 Lakes
Backcountry skiing in Minnesota is not the same as backcountry skiing in Vermont or Lake Tahoe, or even the nearby Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It isn't easy to cut Telemark turns across a frozen lake surface. Here in the middle of the country, we have winter. More often than not, we have a lot of snow. And we have backcountry. It may be horizontal backcountry, but it is the real deal, none the less. We also average over two dozen days each year with temperatures below zero, and the winds whipping across the Great Plains make it seem even colder. In the winter, in the snow, there are four ways to get around: snowshoes, dog sled, snowmobile and skis, and in the true backcountry, such as the wilderness of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA) snowmobiles are forbidden.
We actually have three levels of backcountry here in Minnesota; (and Wisconsin) groomed, ungroomed and wilderness. Groomed backcountry, such as Sand Dunes State Forest, (Zimmerman) Trout Lake Primitive Area (Grand Rapids) or Washburn Lake Solitude Area (Outing) are managed areas, but are a distance from the nearest town, have no facilities other than maybe an outhouse at the trailhead, and only see occasional grooming and rare patrols by DNR or US Forest Service personnel. Ungroomed areas, such as Birch Lakes State Forest, (Melrose) or the Simpson Creek Trail System (Deer River) have existing trails that are open to skiing and winter camping, but there is no support system in place. Skiers must be self-sufficient, capable and equipped to survive a possible unexpected overnight stay, and know how to use a map and compass. Wilderness areas are the next degree of difficulty, with no trails specifically designed for skiing, long expanses of lake and/or forest which require excellent winter camping, navigation and survival skills. What patrols you might see in ungroomed or wilderness areas are usually on dog sleds, and they are few and far between. In the BWCA, the US Forest Service Law Enforcement Officers and Wilderness Rangers use sleds and dog teams for interior winter patrol, but we have not heard of any other agency doing so in the "Lower 48." In some state parks with extensive backcountry, such as Jay Cooke (Carlton) or St. Croix (Hinkley) you may see occasionally Park Rangers on ski patrol as their schedules permit, but the deeper into the backcountry you go, the less frequent those patrols are.
Skis for the backcountry are different than their counterparts for groomed track and race skiing. First of all, they are wider, and usually, therefore heavier. Metal edges are helpful of icy or crusty surfaces, but are not required. My favorite skis for backcountry skiing are Trak Bushwackers with Berwin Backcountry Bindings, which are a universal binding that can be used with either Steger mukluks, (see the picture at the top of the page) or Pac boots in wetter conditions. I also use a pair of Karhu 10th Mountain Tour skis with Karhu Convert BC boots and 75mm 3-pin Telemark bindings. Neither of these model skis are made any more, but Karhu does have similar models called the Mountain XCD (Bushwackers) and the Pinnacle. (10th Mountain) Adjustable ski/snowshoeing poles with wider, powder baskets are much better in off-trail conditions than the poles used by recreational and racing skiers.
Anytime you choose to go skiing in a backcountry setting, you need to go prepared. Although we won't tell you that you can't travel by yourself, those who head into the forest on their own have an additional responsibility to be fully prepared in case something should go wrong. Many skiers, including members of the Backcountry Trail Patrol, enjoy the peace and solitude of skiing solo. Solo means alone, and alone means without somebody to help you if you get in trouble. Make sure you care the "10 Essentials" with you whenever you ski in the backcountry:
1. Navigation (map and compass)
2. Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
3. Insulation (extra clothing)
4. Illumination (headlamp, flashlight, bulb and batteries)
5. First-aid kit (with warming packs)
6. Fire (Waterproof matches and fire starters)
7. Repair kit and tools (including knife or multi-tool)
8. Nutrition (extra food)
9. Hydration (extra water)
10. Emergency shelter.
Additionally, if your trip will require crossing any bodies of water, you should also be carrying a set of "ice self-rescue picks" on a cord around your neck. (See below) These picks are the Midwestern wilderness skiers equivalent of an avalanche transceiver: DON'T CROSS FROZEN WATER WITHOUT THEM!
NEW! Recently, I saw a video of U.S. Marines training on lake ice at the Marine Corps Winter Warfare Training Center. Upon breaking through the ice, the soldiers are trained to dump their packs and shed their skis as quickly as possible, but hold onto their ski poles. They then slide their hands down to the top of the snow baskets on the poles, and use the ski pole tips in the same manner as the self-rescue picks shown above. It appeared to be a good practice, as long as you remember to hold on to the poles. Extreme care must be taken when crossing any ice, any time, and even more so if you are traveling solo.
We have included a list of trails where we like skiing in Minnesota and Wisconsin on the "Trails" page of this website. More information on winter camping can be found on the Camping page and at the 2nd Annual Backcountry Winter Workshop on February 11th, 2006.
Skier's Code of Ethics
Louis Dawson, http://www.wildsnow.com