Woods & Mountains
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One Family's Backcountry Misadventures

A true story of winter survival ... and fun!
By Lucie B. Amundsen
Published: October 7, 2011
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WINTRY SECLUSION – That we were headed somewhere so isolated as to be media-worthy did not comfort me.
Photo by Lucie B. Amundsen
When old friends issued an invitation to share a cabin for a weekend of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, I jumped at the idea. Spending time with people I don’t see enough while engaging in an activity I don’t do enough sounded perfect. And hadn’t I been meaning to get my family out on skinny skis?
    I’m the only Nordic skier in the family. My husband Jason, and our children, Abbie (10) and Milo (7), prefer the pace and ease of downhill, but I argued that they really hadn’t tried cross-country, or not recently. I sold the idea around the dinner table to an underwhelmed audience: “I promise; it’ll be great!”
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HEADING OUT – Steve Lampman, owner of Log Cabin Hideaways, transports gear and guests with his 13-foot homemade wooden sled "for the real pack rats," he says with a grin.
Photo by Lucie B. Amundsen
Be Prepared
There’s nothing quite like gear to bring a sense of excitement to an adventure. This called for a field trip to the local ski-shop rental store – I got my crew sized up and outfitted, choosing ski lengths shorter than standard with the idea that it would be easier for a newbie to handle less ski. This weekend wasn’t about speed records, just about trying to force my family to enjoy something I enjoy because I know what’s good for them. You know, like any good mother.
    A couple of days before the trip, I thoroughly read the materials that our friends had sent along. In my prior skimming, I hadn’t picked up that the cabin was actually located in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area – a million-acre wilderness area located on the U.S.–Canada border. Now, as I perused the cabin’s amenities, all I could see was what wasn’t there: no electricity, no running water and – most notably – no road. It was a four-mile ski (or 20-minute snowmobile ride) to a place without everyday safety nets. I know folks who survive perfectly well in the outback, and once I was one of them. But that was a husband and two children ago.
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Photo by Lucie B. Amundsen
Getting There —
Half the Fun?

We met our cabinmates, Tom and Kevin, in a remote parking area surrounded by 4-foot-high snowbanks. A vintage snowmobile emerged from the forest. Towing a 13-foot homemade wooden sled on skids held together with strong nylon cord (“for give” on bumpy trails), our chariot had arrived.
    The driver, Steve Lampman, is the affable owner/ builder of the cabins, and has been running Log Cabin Hideaways with his wife, Liz, since 1989. He was off-loading the crew of a televised outdoor adventure show that had been shooting an upcoming episode about remote ice fishing. That we were headed somewhere so isolated as to be media-worthy did not comfort me.
    Jason elected to ride ahead on the snowmobile with the kids and gear, while Tom, Kevin and I were to ski the four miles in. Steve, using my pole, drew a map in the snow of our intended route through a quarry and across two lakes and a portage to get to the pond where our cabin was located. (Note: Maps drawn on snowbanks travel poorly.) Then, mounting his snow machine, Steve waved us off with a friendly word of warning: “Don’t break a leg.” Apparently that had already happened this season. I laughed a little too loudly, clicked into my secondhand skis and felt every bit the poser I was. What had I gotten us into?
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TREKKING IN – The remote cabin and trails were a winter wonderland.
Photo by Lucie B. Amundsen
Gliding down out of the snow-filled quarry, the first snow-covered lake was marked by tiny pine boughs across the wide expanse to keep guests on track. Tom and Kevin settled into their pace while I pulled ahead, nervously channeling the NordicTrack guy from 80s commercials. I was keeping a brisk tempo “for warmth,” I told myself, but really, I just wanted to reach the life-sustaining amenities of the cabin.
    About 40 minutes into it, I stopped and looked around. My friends were not yet in view, giving me a solid view of white, including the overcast skies. Although it was only midafternoon, it seemed that dusk could fall any moment. The bigness of that barren terrain ringed by snowy pines was palpable – like I’d skied into a lonely PBS Joy of Painting landscape. I half expected Dr. Zhivago to snowshoe past, muttering about Bolsheviks. The expanse of frozen lake, while beautiful, also looked like a really good place to die.
    Not long after that, the pine bough markers thinned and I took a wrong turn (snowbank-map FAIL!). I had started up a trail but saw it was posted “PRIVATE,” so, being a former plaid-wearing Catholic schoolgirl, I hightailed it out of there. It didn’t occur to me that it was posted for the private cabin we had rented. I found myself traversing up an incredibly steep and narrow path … that eventually petered out. Mypulse was in my ears as my eyes searched from tree to tree to tree, looking for anything remotely pathlike. Turning around, I gambled on the private trail. It did,  indeed, bring me to our place. I was the last to arrive.
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CABIN CHORES – Jason scoops water from the lake for cooking and washing dishes while Milo looks on skeptically.
Photo by Lucie B. Amundsen
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UNWELCOME SIGHT – The magical landscape did little to enhance trips to the outhouse.
Photo by Lucie B. Amundsen
Log Cabin Hideaway
The small, two-story log cabin already had a fire going in the freestanding stove. Jason had been schooled by our host, Steve, on the art of ice-breaking for dishwater, how to light the sauna and the location of the outhouse to empty the chamber pot. Hearing this last part, my children looked like someone slapped them, while I struggled to arrange my face to read something like: “Wow! Real chamber pots! Lucky us!”
    At 14x16 feet, the cabin was built for function. The sink, which drained into a bucket, was flanked by
a huge basin of lake water on the left for dishwashing and potable water stored high right for easy pouring. Even the loft ladder swung up to keep floor space clear. Clearly, thought had gone into every inch of this layout.
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WELCOME DISTRACTION – Card games with Kevin keep Abbie and Milo entertained.
Photo by Lucie B. Amundsen
More Adventure
After a light supper, I settled in to unpack while Jason grabbed some ski time. Although Tom was already tired, he opted to join Jason. Shortly after they left, a brisk snow began to fall, leaving Kevin and I to stoke the fire, make tea and settle into some card games with the children. I was starting to feel all of my anxiety about this trip was for naught when, while dealing the next hand, the passage of time hit me: Jason and Tom really should have been back by now.
    Dusk was sweeping in and I noticed Jason’s headlamp sitting on the sill near where his ski pants lay. A list was forming of all the things he didn’t have: food, water, GPS, cell service.  
    In an effort to make the cabin more visible in the growing dark, I lit every wall-mounted propane lantern and started to talk in my high voice reserved for lies. “Did I ever tell you about all that survival training Daddy got in the army?” I neglected to mention that he had been in Kentucky. More forced games, swallows of tea, nervous looks and then – we heard people outside our door. I hopped up from the table so fast I knocked over my chair, but despite the blackness of night I could tell immediately it was not our people. These were the hard-core skiers from the cabin one lake over. They had seen Jason and Tom. “They’re probably about half an hour behind us,” said the man wearing one of those full-body ski suits rarely seen outside of competitive sports. “They followed us onto one of the back trails. Man, it was a tough climb, especially in this storm.”
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COZY CABIN – Jason and Milo enjoy the warmth from the small cabin's only heat source: the wood-burning stove.
Photo by Lucie B. Amundsen
Now if Mr. Hard Body Olympics was daunted, how were Tom and my cubical-dwelling husband faring? At this point, concern tipped over into fright.
    When the next 30 minutes came up empty, the now nervous children insisted on donning snowshoes and headlamps to walk up the trail with me and cast some light. Until we headed out, I hadn’t understood just how much it was snowing. In fact, flakes were really all the headlamp illuminated. I couldn’t imagine how the pair could see anything, much less keep to a rugged trail.
    Stomping around our island in the snow, every snowdrift looked like it contained a body and my voice was now so high it cracked. Eventually, with guilty thoughts of how underinsured our family is, I led the children back and we settled into an uneasy quiet.
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BURIED DEEP – Kevin and Tom instructed the group in the joys of the "snow freefall."
Photo by Lucie B. Amundsen
The Return    
An hour later, and nearly three after they’d set out, Jason and Tom were sitting in front of the fire regaling us about the “shortcut” they took. The fresh powder was so thick it was impossible to “V-step” up hills and the trail too narrow to sidestep. They had to take off their skis and carry them up the steeper sections. Trudging for one minute, then resting for 30 seconds, they sank thigh-deep in the snow. Eventually, not knowing if they were miles or feet from our cabin, they turned around and went back the way they came, passing the neighbor’s cabin and borrowing a headlamp.
    While we tried to laugh it off, I could tell by his prolonged hug and wet eyes Jason had been scared – really, really scared. Seeing how underprepared he’d been in his wet jeans, it brought home the truth that it doesn’t take too many wrong decisions out here to make it your last one.
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MAGICAL MOMENT – Abbie found a trailside mailbox filled with chocolates.
Photo by Lucie B. Amundsen
Better Day
The next day, I wanted to play “CSI: XC Skier” and backtrack to where things went so terribly wrong, but everyone talked me out of it – and for the better. It freed us to snowshoe along wooded trails banked high with more fluffy snow than I’d seen since my childhood and to remember why we were there in the first place.
    Later, the kids and I worked our basic ski techniques on the pond (within the comforting view of the cabin) and watched fat grosbeaks and a gingery fox play along the shoreline. Jason fired up the sauna to sleep-inducing temps, and we threw ourselves into the huge, soft snow banks, celebrating the life part of cabin life. And before we knew it, it was time to leave.
    To my surprise, when safely strapped into the minivan heading home, the talk was all about our next cross-country skiing trip. Fun, it would seem, is a mysterious pursuit.

Lucie B. Amundsen is a Minnesota-based writer who resolves to avoid injuring her family in the new year.

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CROSS-COUNTRY
SKIING TIPS

•  BE PREPARED. Bring and/or wear everything you would need for a long day on the trail: snacks or energy foods, water, waxing kit, sunglasses, sunscreen, cell phone and sufficient layers of clothing for varying conditions. If you’re traveling off trail, consider extra gloves, socks, matches, a compass and topo maps.
KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS. Do not attempt trails that are above your skill level or longer distance than your physical conditioning will permit.
GET IN SHAPE. A higher level of fitness will make for a safer experience; plus, it will allow you to stay on trails longer and have a more enjoyable experience.
LEARN PROPER SKI TECHNIQUE. If you’re a better skier, you’ll be less likely to be injured, be able to ski farther with the same or lower amount of energy and spend more time skiing.
USE GOOD EQUIPMENT. Ski equipment has evolved enormously over the past 20 years. New equipment is safer, more efficient and, in the end, much more fun.
BE SAFE. Skiing alone is okay if you observe all of the above precautions. Still, let someone know when you’re leaving, when you expect to get back and where you are going. Don’t deviate from what you say.
KEEP AN EYE ON THE WEATHER. Know what to expect so that you’re not caught in a serious storm.
WATCH THE TIME OF DAY. Plan your ski outing to allow adequate time to complete your route before 4:00 p.m. during midwinter when the sun sets early. If you’re going to be out late, bring a headlamp, just in case.  

Ron Bergin is publisher/editor of Cross-Country Skier magazine.
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