Celebrating New Years in the Backcountry
Our NYE Tradition
Ely, Minnesota is the gateway to one of America’s purest outdoor experiences, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In our household it is also known as our Happy Place. We had never been to Ely in the Winter, so this was a real treat and our stay at Sundew Cabin made it even more memorable.
Our New Years Eve tradition doesn’t involve gallons of Prosecco and thumping music in a dimly lit bar. Since moving back to the US it has included a trip to the Arrowhead region of Northern Minnesota for a stay in a rustic log cabin. This year we chose Sundew Cabin, which is located east of Ely, MN tucked way back in the woods.
The cabin sits on 40 acres of private woodland and is surrounded by nothing except wide open expanses of public land. I don’t think life gets much better. It is a beautiful off the grid and hand-built log cabin with a matching traditional sauna. Due to its rustic nature, it does not have running water, so it has an old-school outhouse and you have to pump water by hand. While the cabin’s lights run on solar power there are no electrical outlets- so arrive with your phone fully charged! There is a fridge/freezer and stove that run off propane and the house is mainly heated by a wood burning stove. Our kids loved the off the grid feel to the cabin and settled right in. One of their favorite parts of the cabin was that in order to shower you had to heat water in the sauna. Yes, being off the grid takes extra work, but trust me, it is worth it! There are very few chances in life to be this secluded without the need for a tent!
The bird feeders were a huge hit. They hung right outside of the main window and attracted what felt like an entire forest full of Black-Capped Chickadees, Nuthatches, Blue-jays, and their arch enemies, the red squirrels. Chickadees are known for being quite tame, and we were able to convince them to eat out of our hands by the end of the trip. Betty even had one land on her head for a rest!
Day 1 – Arrival and SO MUCH SNOW
Getting Settled In
Our first day included an approximately 4.5 hour drive north from the Twin Cities to Ely. Due to the cabin’s remote nature, the owner had a local greeter there to help teach us about the uniqueness of the experience. Dave looked fit for an Ely, MN postcard with circular wire-rimed glasses and a good pair of Steger Mukluks. He gave us the go around and was so pleased to see two young kids eager and ready to embrace this type of experience.
We settled in and fired up the wood burning stove in the cabin, which is the primary source of heat. We then went out back and fired up the sauna stove, which is also wood burning (and a Kuuma stove for all of the sauna nuts reading this blog).
Snowshoeing at its Finest
Sundew cabin sits on its own private pond, Sundew Pond. A short 3/4 mile hike east brings you to Kemptons Lake, which is your closest neighbor with one additional cabin. We decided a short hike would be a good way to stretch out our legs after that long car ride. Like much of Minnesota, Ely had over 18 inches of snow and we were the first to walk that trail. Even with snowshoes it was slow going. After about an hour we decided to turn back. We were hot. We were sweaty. And we could feel the sauna calling.
We took off our snowshoes and remaining winter garments and hopped into our warm Finnish bathhouse. With kids we like to keep the temperatures lower between 100 and 150 degrees F. Once they were safely asleep, we cranked it up to 180-200 F and had a real experience.
Day Two – Kawishiwi Falls and the Hegman Lake Pictographs
Our second day started with what the kids nicknamed a SBB, Sauna Before Breakfast. It became a mainstay of our trip and was never missed.
Kawishiwi Falls Hike
Our first adventure was a hike to Kawishiwi Falls. The hike is an easy 0.8 mile lollipop loop. Thankfully we were not the first visitors and the trail had been well packed. This was the only hike we didn’t need snowshoes or any other type of winter equipment.
The hike was quite easy and temperatures were in the high 20s. The falls were roaring and we could hear them from the parking lot. This was a fun experience because we start many of our summer Boundary Waters trips on Kawishiwi Lake, which is connected to the Kawishiwi River via a series of lakes on the far eastern side of the wilderness area. We’ve even canoed in as far as the Kawishiwi River proper. Had we just kept going west for another 4-5 days of paddling, we could have come out right at this spot.
This would be a beautiful spot to stop in any season, however winter holds a special magic. We were the only hikers and it is always amazing to see the ability of moving water to hold the freezing grasp of winter at bay.
After our hike we stopped at Zup’s Supermarket to stock up for the weekend and then were off on our next adventure. If you are ever in the Arrowhead region of MN, stop at a Zup’s. They are great little supermarkets and have an amazing meat section with cured/smoked goods made in house. Their Jalapeño meat sticks are to die for.
A Kicksled adventure to the Pictographs on Hegman Lake
Ely Bike and Kicksled
Our next stop was Ely Bike and Kicksled in downtown Ely. We knew our snowshoes would be getting a workout this trip so thought we’d add a little variety. Ely Bike and Kicksled is run by Alvin Goeser and is a full service bike shop. You can also rent fat tire bikes and cross country skis.
We settled on a large and medium sized kicksled. Our logic was we could all take turns pushing each other. We were wrong and ended up just pushing the kids. We should have known better!
The Pictographs at Hegman Lake
Hegman Lake is in the heart of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and is arguably one of its most beautiful. In addition to year-round camping, the lake is also home to a well-preserved example of Native American (Anishinaabe) pictographs.
The hike (winter only) out to the pictographs is about 1.8 miles each way. Due to its popularity there was a pretty well traveled path (if you could stay on it!) for our kicksleds to glide down. Although the ice was about 15+ inches already, the Northwoods had received an early and heavy snow, which trapped water on top of the ice. A common theme from our trip was that every time we stepped off of the trail, or had to blaze our own, we were walking in slush.
The journey out was A LOT OF WORK, but well worth it. That heavy snow hung on the spruce boughs and made for a picturesque winter wonderland. The pictographs were far clearer than we expected and consist of a man with outstretched arms, a dog or wolf, a well detailed moose and some additional markings. They were well worth the ride out there. On the way back we were exhausted. Kristen was down to a t-shirt and fleece leggings and I was in sweat pants and a quarter zip. The kids on the other hand were half asleep just enjoying their ride.
Back in the parking lot we noticed a car that looked awfully familiar. It turns out one of our friends who is one of the organizers for the annual Winter Camping Symposium was out on his annual winter camping adventure with his kids. It is such a small world and was so shocking to see someone we knew out in the backcountry!
Dinner at Insula Restaurant
While we do not eat out often on our trips, we decided we had earned it. Insula Restaurant in downtown Ely serves up American-fusion cuisine with a focus on local sourcing. They have a great kids’ menu and a superb Walleye sandwich. Take a look at their wild-rice burger and chicken pot pie as well. The best part for Kristen is that they have a good selection of gluten-free bread. Burgers and sandwich’s are so much better wrapped in something good!
We topped the evening of with a glass of wine and a sauna and turned in for the night.
Day 3 – Our First Backcountry Ice-Fishing Experience
Yes, you guessed it. Our day started off with a Sauna Before Breakfast. Predictable. We know.
Backcountry Ice Fishing
Our real adventure was a hike to Pickerel Lake for some ice fishing. We had brought with all of our gear (poles, fish finder, pop-up ice house, bait, etc.). We also had the sled I built at the NOW Outdoors class at the 2022 Winter Camping Symposium. If you have an interest, even a small one, in winter camping, be sure to check it out. I was anxious to give our new toy its maiden voyage.
We loaded up the sled and took off. Again, we were making a mile long trail in 12-18″ of snow, and again we ran into the slush issue on the lake. We had set a goal and were determined to achieve it, so we pushed onward. Needless to say, the ice fishing part of the adventure was short lived. The wind was howling across the lake which made the ice house difficult to set up. Once up, the zipper on one side broke. We were able to secure it enough for the kids to have some lunch.
I pulled out the auger and popped one hole in the ice. I had to at least drop a line. Water gushed up the hole and I realized we were one mistake away from having cold, wet feet and a long hike back to the cabin. We made the difficult decision to call an end to our adventure and pack up.
Thank god that we did. What we didn’t realized was that slush would freeze to the bottom of our sled and make it almost impossible to pull. It took two of us to keep it moving and frequent stops to clear the bottom. A lot of lessons were learned on this trip that will be put to good use in the future.
Wolves… At Least We Think
Once back at the cabin we started to hear a lot of howling. We knew it could come from one of two sources, the wolves that inhabit the area, or teams of sled dogs. Due to our proximity to the Boundary Waters, we assumed the latter and took our nightly sauna. As we will detail in a bit, we were wrong. They definitely were not sled dogs.
Day 4 – News Year’s Eve and the International Wolf Center
Yep, we started New Year’s Eve day off with a sauna. How could we not?
Hike to Kemptons Lake
We had a date for 2PM, which was when were were going to celebrate the New Year. Even the adults didn’t want to stay up until midnight!
So we stayed close and finished our trail out to Kemptons Lake. We only made it about half way on our first attempt, so still had our work cut out for us. But we made it. Right when I was stepping out on to Kemptons Lake I broke through the ice and ended up ankle deep in water and muck.
It was not a terribly cold day, but feet can freeze fast. We decided it was best that I high-tailed it back to the cabin before anything bad could happen and Kristen and the kids would have a snack and take their time getting back. One thing I was surprised by was that my feet did not end up that cold. I was working hard and after about five minutes it felt like I had wetsuit boots on. I could feel the water sloshing around, but my body heated it up and the boots held in that warmth. I’m sure time was a factor and had the temperatures been lower I would have felt much differently.
We made it back safe and sound just in time to ring in our New Year. The sauna was warm, the Prosecco and sparkling cider were flowing, and we were excited to reflect on another great year together as a family.
Wolf Feeding at the International Wolf Center
International Wolf Center
In addition to ringing in the New Year a bit early, we had a big surprise for the kiddos. Ely is home to two unique educational experiences, the North American Bear Center and the International Wolf Center. Both provide educational resources focused on some of the least understood animals in North America, predators.
After another nice dinner at Insula Restaurant we headed over to the International Wolf Center. We had purchased tickets in advance for their weekly feeding. We showed up in a light snow at about 7PM, long after sunset in this part of the world and were ushered down a hallway to a small auditorium with unobstructed views of the wolf enclosure. Sure enough, two wolves were out curled up on a rock waiting patiently.
The center puts on a 10-15 minute presentation talking about wolves, their habitats, and their behaviors. Our kids loved a little video where musk ox were shown making a protective ring around their young when a pack of wolves approached.
They also had a sensory table. Kids could touch and compare wolf and coyote pelts, prints, scat (poop), and deer and moose legs. Remember the scat part. It will come in handy later!
Then came the big show. A worker brought out a deer carcass in a wheel barrow and dropped it off. Soon all of the wolves showed up. An interesting part is they did not have any of the Great Plains Grey Wolf, which inhabit the area around Ely. They did have Western Rocky Mountain and Arctic wolves. The Arctic wolves grabbed a snack and were off into the woods to eat in peace. The other three stuck around. Two were juvenile, and behaved like it! They did not have the confidence to claim their spot and spent a whole lot of time goofing around with each other.
The real star was the female. She staked her claim at the head and got to work. Anytime the other two came close, she showed her teeth and let them know they’d have to wait. We found out later her delicacy is the brain and she was determined to celebrate the New Year with her favorite morsel.
Adult New Years Celebration
Our kids’ bedtime is around 7:30PM, so the feeding took them well beyond it! We went back to the cabin and they were out instantly. Luckily we had stoked the sauna stove and came out to a blazing hot sauna! We enjoyed our hard earned peace and quiet and reflected on an amazing 2022, which included starting this blog after about a decade of talking about it! We also reflected on how lucky we are to live in a state with four seasons and true wilderness.
Day 5 – Real Ice Fishing and the Wolves
Ice Fishing Adventure
At dinner the prior evening we thought that we should give ice fishing another shot. The problem was that our gear was not ideal given the ice conditions and it was New Years Eve. Nobody was going to pick up the phone for a New Years Day reservation in a permanent ice house. I told Kristen we were crazy for trying but did so anyways. No luck.
Veterans on the Lake Resort
We came into the cabin after our habitual morning sauna and low and behold I had a voicemail. Andy at Veterans On the Lake Resort had called and said he had an opening in one of his houses in the morning. We were in luck! I called him back, apologized for our poor planning, and thanked him profusely for squeezing us in. We packed up our fishing gear, stopped at Arrowhead Outdoors for some shiner minnows, and headed down the road to Fall Lake.
For those of you that have never been on a frozen lake, it is quite the experience. Andy was out on his four wheeler plowing the fresh snow off of the ice road. We drove out there on the ice and parked next to our fish house.
If you do plan on driving out on the ice, first and foremost make sure the ice is good and thick enough. You can do this by talking to the locals (or owner of the resort). Then, put your windows down and unbuckle your seatbelts. While falling through is rare, it can happen. If your windows are up, you would have to wait until the inside of your car filled with water before you could open them due to the pressure differential. If your seatbelt is on, you may struggle to get it off.
The Actual Fishing
Our ice house had eight holes (you can have two poles in the water per person in the winter in MN) and a propane heater. Andy was a gem and was so helpful. He was also very excited to see kids out there. He knows how much fun it can be and how important it is to get kids outside.
The truth is, we didn’t catch a thing. We didn’t even see anything. But we spent three hours together eating snacks, playing Uno, and having fun. Henrik and Betty played outside in the snow until Henrik stepped in a wet spot (remember the slush on the lakes) and lost a boot. I had to quickly dig it out before it froze in permanently. Needless to say we spent the remainder of our time inside the ice house.
Ice fishing is an experience that everyone should try at least once and Ely is full of places to rent ice houses. You can also rent all of the gear you need from the various bait shops and hire a guide if you so desire. Part of our NYE research brought up a guy named Peter Johnson who will take you out via a sled dog team into the BWCAW for a day of fishing. That’ll be our next adventure for sure!
The Kawishiwi River System via Pickerel Lake
Our final adventure was a hike to Kawishiwi River. We had already blazed a trail to Pickerel Lake so we thought why not take the portage into the Boundary Waters. We were in for a surprise!
The night before we heard what we thought were wolf calls. It was hard to tell as it could have been a dogsled team running in the BWCA as well. When we arrived at the start of our trail, we realized it was wolves! We had a fresh snow from the night prior and there were fresh tracks everywhere, along with a pile of fresh wolf scat.
We followed their trail all the way to Pickerel Lake, across the lake, and for half of the portage to Kawishiwi River. Along the way we could count four wolves in the pack and came across two other piles of scat. We also saw places where they played, sniffed, and dug.
It was amazing to have this opportunity the day after we went to the wolf feeding. Much of what we learned the night before was demonstrated in real life! The hike into the BWCA was a beautiful hike, however the part we won’t forget was the close encounter with the wolves.
Day 6 – The End
It is always sad seeing such a great trip come to an end. We packed up our bags, went through our chores on the cabin’s checkout list, and took one last sauna. Then we were off.
Luckily Ely is not too far from home and we know we’ll be back again soon. We already have plans for more fishing and a night or two camping in the BWCA. If you ever have an opportunity, do not let it pass. If a rustic cabin isn’t your thing, there are plenty of resorts around for all types.