When Hazel Oberholtzer from Lutsen, who is in 7th grade, woke up in a tent in the BWCA Wilderness last weekend, when it was more than 20 degrees below zero, the last thing she expected was to be too warm. Hazel found herself in this unlikely position while visiting Dave and Amy Freeman on Wood Lake near Ely. Hazel traveled into Wood Lake with her brother, Cy, who is 10, her dad, John Oberholtzer, and a friend, Andy Keith, from Grand Marais.
Dave and Amy Freeman are spending a full year in the BWCA Wilderness without coming out even once, to call attention to proposed sulfide mining that threatens to pollute the water in the wilderness. They’ve been in the wilderness since late September, traveling first by canoe and now with the help of three sled dogs, Tank, Tina and Acorn.
The Oberholtzer party pulled four toboggans into Wood Lake via the 180-rod portage along the Fernberg Road northeast of Ely. The portage is mostly downhill so Hazel and Cy took the opportunity to ride their toboggans down the slopes. They not only had their own tent, woodstove and camping gear, but also brought in some people food, dog food and equipment for Dave and Amy.
The dog team, accompanied by Dave and Amy, met them at the wilderness boundary. Dave suggested that all four toboggans be hooked into a train to be pulled by the dogs. It was an open question whether the dogs could pull such a large load, but they took off so fast that Dave and Amy had to sprint and dive to catch the train before it left the station unaccompanied.
As the group traveled to the campsite it was 28 degrees. By the second night of the trip it had dropped to -24 degrees. With the help of the dogs, a good supply of down and dead ash firewood had been gathered, bucked and split, for feeding the wood stoves in the tents. Everyone had a winter weight sleeping bag, but John, being a careful father, made sure the stove was stoked every two hours. That, along with a hot water bottle in her sleeping bag, was the cause of Hazel’s overheating.
Aside from the risk of heat stroke, the group had great fun skijoring, exploring, visiting and playing with the dogs. They particularly enjoyed absorbing the Freemans’ manner and mindset after they’ve spent more than one hundred straight days in the wilderness.
The Oberholtzers’ adventure is the perfect example of why the BWCA Wilderness is a national treasure and deserves to be fully protected. The adventure, fun, peace and comradeship experienced by the Hazel and Cy will enrich the rest of their lives. In fact, it was the wilderness that first brought their parents to northeastern Minnesota to establish their careers and raise their family. It creates an economy and community that are sustainable and enriching.
If you want to know more about the immediate and very real threats to the wilderness, the organization that is sponsoring the Freemans, “Save The Boundary Waters,” is hosting a community conversation in Grand Marais on Thursday, January 28 from 5:30 until 7 pm at the Community Center Social Room. You can find more details online at: savetheboundarywaters.org.
Speaking of the wilderness, it is slowly dawning on everyone with a connection to the wilderness that a quiet disaster has occurred. The phenomenon is being called the “snow-down” or the “bend-down” as opposed to the “blow-down” that occurred in 1999. A couple of heavy, wet snows, followed by cold weather, have bent or broken untold numbers of trees into portages and campsites in large swaths of the wilderness. As trail maintenance workers have slaved to clear the snowmobile and ski trails outside the wilderness, it has become apparent that the clearing effort required to open the wilderness for the 2016 canoeing season is going to be massive.
The Forest Service has scheduled one of their Beaver aircraft to fly over the wilderness soon in an attempt to map the scope of the problem. It is already clear that the work required exceeds the ability of the existing wilderness crews to do the job in a timely manner. Either outside crews will need to be brought in or a huge volunteer effort will have to be organized – or both.
There is never a dull moment, here in the wild and wooly West End.
(Photo courtesy of Dave and Amy Freeman)