Camping out in sub-zero conditions? How I found cold comfort — and sound sleep at last — on a winter trail

Longing for fresh air, writer Jennifer Jeanne Patterson set out for the Superior Hiking Trail in Northern Minnesota.

JPBy Jennifer Jeanne PattersonSpecial to the StarFri., Jan. 14, 2022timer4 min. readJOIN THE CONVERSATION

Snow swirled and fell from Northern Minnesota’s inky black sky, landing inside our tent where we’d ripped it. This is how you get hypothermia, I thought to myself, as my 14-year-old son unzipped the tent flap excitedly. My 12-year-old daughter scooched towards him in her sleeping bag like an inchworm. “It’s like being inside a snow globe,” she said.

Yes, yes it was.

By nature, we’re a family of explorers. But the coronavirus had left us leery of hotels, restaurants and airplanes. Camping had been our only reprieve from our stagnation, which led my husband and me to drive two and a half hours north in fall 2020, to backpack for three days along the Superior Hiking Trail in Northern Minnesota.

The frozen North Shore of Lake Superior.

Our 33-kilometre segment left me with a sense of accomplishment I hadn’t felt since the pandemic hit. Winter camping along one of the trail’s more than 90 first-come, first-serve campsites seemed to be the perfect way to release the restless beasts my children had become with schools shut down.

There was only one problem: I hate the cold.

Make that two: Minnesota winters are unforgiving.

But I was desperate to get out, and even as a novice hiker, could easily follow the blue rectangular trail markers to ensure we wouldn’t get lost and freeze.

The nearly 500-kilometre Superior Hiking Trail offers spectacular views of Lake Superior.

The nearly 500-kilometre trail extends from Duluth, Minnesota, to the Canadian border, cutting through limestone bluffs and densely forested mountain ridges that offer spectacular views of Lake Superior, the largest freshwater lake in the world. We decided to do a test run on one of its most traversed trails, the Split Rock River loop, to work out any kinks before camping in sub-zero temps.

A wintry view of Lake Superior ? and Split Rock Lighthouse in the distance ? in Minnesota.

Unforeseen parking rules turned our three-kilometre trek to eight. We had to leave our van at Split Rock Lighthouse State Park and cross under Highway 61 to get to the trailhead. It didn’t leave us with much time to get to our campsite and set up before dark.

“Who carries firewood into a forest?” my son asked good-naturedly, as I’d hedged my bets by stuffing a Firestarter log into his 30-pound pack. In mine, I carried the tent.

He and his sister, along with our leashed golden retriever, raced up a long slope of gnarly tree roots. The Split Rock River is rumoured to be named after twin red rhyolite rock pillars and my kids stopped to pose beneath them. Occasionally, hikers passed us, including a bride trailed by a pink-cheeked photographer. As dusk approached, the trail grew quieter until we were the only ones left.

Dating back to 1910, Split Rock Lighthouse is one of Minnesota's most recognizable and photographed sights.

Once at our campsite, we unfurled our four-person tent. A rod snapped during setup and ripped the fabric. My son dug through his backpack for duct tape, only to discover his sister had removed it to make space for her hairbrush.

“Who brushes their hair while camping?” he asked, exasperated by us while feeling the pressure of dwindling daylight. I shrugged and gave him space.

The temperature dipped. My daughter and I arranged our self-inflating sleeping pads while my son split soggy kindling into smaller pieces, attempting to dry it out using a tinder teepee he’d built in the fire ring. At last, flames flickered. Now, we just needed food and water.

We crab-walked down slippery slabs of rock to fetch water for drinking and rehydrating our freeze-dried meals. Bellies warmed, we packed our scented items in a hard-shelled canister we hid downwind.

Ever since the pandemic hit, I’d suffered from corona-somnia. It was like my brain forgot my warm, beloved bed was for sleeping and ruminated in it instead, so I was sure I’d stay up all night, guarding against black bears and grey wolves. But the fresh-air hike had tired my body out and slowed my racing mind to the point where it felt like slumber would come naturally.

Until a few snowflakes fell through the tent.

Unnerved, I moved our clothes so they wouldn’t get wet, while my son, delighted by our first snowfall of the year, simply got out and readjusted the rain shield. I was struck by his ability to trust himself to handle things.

We watched the snow fall for a while, and then let the sounds of nature lull us to sleep. It felt like the entire world had dozed off so without my phone’s blue light flooding my eyes, my body seemed to instinctively understand there was no point in me being up either. I woke the next morning refreshed, my circadian rhythm reset by the early morning sunlight.

I felt reinvigorated as we hiked out, like we’d played a game of survival against nature and won. The pandemic had taught us to savour every gratifying moment, especially when you’re together as a family.

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