A fresh breeze swept down the frozen lake, picking up loose snow atop the ice and swirling it into a temporary tornado. When the zephyr had passed, the little snow cyclone fell harmlessly back to the ice, leaving only the hunched form of my camping partner, Scott Neustel, on the expansive white scene.
Neustel, of Duluth, was out there jigging for lake trout. We were camped on a lake northwest of Grand Marais, stealing a few warm days in March to live simply in the woods. Our tent was pitched on this lake about halfway up the Gunflint Trail, the ribbon of highway that forges deep into the boreal forest before dead-ending near Saganaga Lake, 60 miles up the trail.
Life was good. The canvas tent, outfitted with a woodstove, was perched on shore. Catch a couple fish, saunter back to camp, fire up the stove, kick back.
The original plan had been to head for trail's end, where the big lake trout live on lakes like Seagull and Saganaga. But with slush and deep snow conditions making extensive lake travel difficult, we had scaled back to Plan B. It's amazing how much a person's reasoning can improve after living for several decades.
As Will Rogers once said, "Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment."
We did encounter a few patches of slush, but nothing serious.
Our lake was entirely within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, where no snowmobiles are permitted. We have happily used the machines to reach distant fishing spots elsewhere, but we welcomed the silence that lay on the land where winter travel is by foot or snowshoe or skis. The loudest sounds we would hear were the yammering of a pileated woodpecker and the snapping of split cedar in the woodstove.
The minnows we had planned to bring were safely tucked away in a refrigerator back home. But we found that bare Rapala Jigging Raps and Snap Raps were quite effective at fooling the trout. We stowed away four of the largest - modest 15-inchers - for dinner back home with our spouses.
The most profound moments of the trip were the simplest: Leaving the warm tent late in the evening to walk under the nearly full moon, following the hop-hop-and-belly-slide of an otter's tracks on our way in, seeing the paw prints of a fox making its patrol along shore.
Actual wildlife was scant. We saw a raven or two. No friendly chickadees visited camp, No gray jays appeared to scavenger crumbs. No barred owls hooted at night. We saw fairly fresh moose scat along shore, an increasingly uncommon discovery in this time of reduced moose populations.
What seemed most meaningful, as always in the wilderness, was leaving behind the layers of civilization, the sheer hustle of life as we know it. We needed to be reminded, again, how little is really essential to live well, at least for short periods, in the wild. Basic shelter. Wood for the fire. Water from the lake. A little food in the belly.
This is a fine planet we happened onto. Edward Abbey seemed to get it right in "Desert Solitaire": "The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need..."
At least for a few days at a time, where lake trout swim beneath the ice.
Sam Cook is a freelance writer for the Duluth News Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or find him on Facebook at facebook.com/SamCook.