Winter Trekking – Sawbill/Alton Lake Entry #38 Boundary Waters Canoe Area

After deciding on a winter trip to Sawbill Lake in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (“BWCA”) of Northern Minnesota, I started working on my DIY pulksled to help with the heavy weight of my winter gear. It was not the biggest sled, but I knew it would do the job. I had a great time constructing the sled, and I was excited to start packing and venture out.

My friend and I started our adventure at Sawbill Canoe Outfitters near Tofte, MN where we could leave our cars at no cost. The outfitters gave us great information on conditions and permits. This Sawbill Lake entry point is located about 4.5 hours north of the Twin Cities

Sawbill Canoe Outfitters, Inc.

After loading the sled with my gear, I hooked up and started toward the lake. The permit kiosk is right next to the Sawbill Lake entry point. There is a latrine near the permit kiosk, which is the last chance for a real bathroom – take advantage if you can!

Right away I realized that a braking system for the sled would be helpful. Until I add brakes I need to make sure and not let the sled run me over going downhill – lesson learned. After getting the permit, it was time to see how this sled would handle.

Permit Station at Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness Entry Point #38 Superior National Forest

With the sled attached to my backpack waist belt I was ready to cross the lake. Using my Garmin In-Reach Mini and EarthMate, we headed across Sawbill Lake toward the portage to Alton Lake. Weather was decent and not much wind. We had the lake to ourselves except for two ladies snowshoeing with their dog; they were all having a blast.

Setting out on my first pulksled adventure. Pure joy!

We made it to the portage. It was a little less than a mile, but I will tell you pulling the sleds with snowshoes is no easy task. It was hard work, and the hard work paid off. The portage to Alton Lake was like a big puff ball. The snow was light and fluffy, kind of like cotton candy. It was a winter wonderland. I have been looking for a new trail name and this is where I found it.

Say hello to Candyland!

Portage between Sawbill Lake and Alton Lake

We snowshoed out of the snow-filled portage to see beautiful Alton Lake. I was getting tired at this point, so we made the decision to head straight across the bay in front of the portage and check out the shoreline of the peninsula for a spot out of the wind to set up camp. We landed on the east side of the nearest peninsula, adding another .5 miles to our day. Total trip miles 1.5 one-way.

This spot was just right, as it was out of the wind and full of beauty.. It was time to set up camp! We hauled firewood to camp because we’re not ready to chop wood yet – baby steps. The wood was purchased in the same county in accordance with the United States Forest Service guidelines. The wood was heavy and made my sled tipsy. I could not wait to get it off my sled.

It was time for my NorthFace Mountain 25 four-season tent to go up. I rented the tent from REI to see how I liked the four-season option. This tent was like a winter castle. Setup was easy after my practice round the night before at home, in my own backyard. I didn’t put down any stakes, as I was on a lake and the stakes didn’t want to go into the ice -go figure. The tent is a free standing setup, and it was just fine.

Free standing The North Face Mountain 25 4 Season Tent – Only because I couldn’t get the stakes into the ice.

My favorite part is to set up my home for the night. I used a ground cover that is waterproof for under the tent. It actually was waterproof. I was impressed. I used a wool blanket with a soft shell on one side on the bottom of the inside of my tent. It’s nice to have the floor covered with wool. It makes a good barrier between my sleep system and the snow.

I feel like a kid when i set up my tent. I LOVE gear. More pure joy!

My sleeping mat setup for winter is a Big Agnes Q-Core XLS wide mat which has an R-factor of 4.7. I put my Thermarest closed cell mat on top of the Q-Core. It makes for an extremely comfortable bed. I use a Nemo 15-degree sleeping bag with a 0-degree quilt inside of the bag.

After camp was set up, it was time to make the fire. I made sure to review guidelines on having a winter campfire to confirm I was in compliance. I started my first fire on a lake and it felt good, as I had done my research this time out. My first attempt at starting a fire in the winter was a failure. Getting this fire started was a win and put an even bigger smile on my face.

Mel and I – Talk time

We had dinner by the campfire with a cup of hot cocoa topped off with mini marshmallows. Then we started the water boiling marathon. The best way I have found to warm up my sleeping bag quickly before I climb in is to fill my Nalgene bottles with boiling water and throw it in your sleeping bag. It warms me up and I can layer down for bed. I was able to sleep in my base layer Ice Breaker 160 top and bottom. And I did not even need to keep my sleep socks on. Toasty warm all night long, even after my midnight outdoor latrine break. You know it’s going to happen every time! The temps dropped to about 10 degrees with a windchill of zero.

Hot Cocoa and Chicken Noodle Soup

I slept in until 9 am, and it was good sleep. It was time to pack up and head back across the lake. Thanks to my Garmin I could check the forecast and see temperatures were going to start dropping. I could see the wind blowing across the lake and it looked chilly. The sun was out and five inches of fresh powder fell from the sky while we slept; it was beautiful.

Waking up to fresh powder and sunshine.

Packing the pulksled back up was quick and easy. No wood to haul – yay. Hot tip: if you want to bring a fancy metal fire ring into the backcountry just know that it will melt into the lake and you will have to chop it out with your handy shovel if you leave it overnight. Another lesson learned.

I always practice leave no trace. It is ok to have a fire on the ice. It is preferred. But I made sure to scatter all ashes and LEAVE NO TRACE that there was ever a fire there.

LNT – Leave No Trace

The fresh powder from the night snowfall was pretty and deep. Breaking trail was tough and the wind was blowing. The sun kept me warm. As we trudged across the frozen lakes towards our cars, I thought about how grateful I was to have had this amazing experience; I began to look forward to my next pulksled journey.

Published by backpackingbeyond

Hi, I’m Monica – I want to inspire you to be your best. For me, that means backpacking. I am my best on the trail and I want to share that experience with you. I have a ton to learn but know enough to be dangerous. I can’t wait to blog from the trail. Sharing the good the bad and the ugly. All of those are sure to happen on any thru-hike. I want to connect with anyone who has an interest in learning about my trips and how to plan trips of their own. My end goal is to get as many people outside and on the trail as possible. I will be working on several beginner weekend trips this year for some guiding experience. Email me with interest. I look forward to seeing all of you on the trail! 🙂

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