Snowshoeing the U.P.'s McCormick Outback

We're heading north toward a channel that connects White Deer Lake to Bulldog Lake like a bar connecting the lobes of a dumbbell. As we reach the northern tip of White Deer, we spy one of the men we'd seen at lunch walking rapidly back south. I call out in a cornball, trailside way, "Hey, hope you broke trail all the way to our camp."

"Not today," he says curtly and walks on.

Soon we see his pal, who stops to chat. His friend was not in the talking mood because he had just fallen through the ice in the channel, up to his waist, and in the 10 degree air, was in a hurry to get back to that camp woodstove a couple of hours' walk away. Terseness forgiven.

"We have dry clothes he can use," I say.

"He'll be okay," the man says, and heads off.

We stay on shore along the channel, but pause to stare at the hole where the man fell in and consider our own fate.

Before striking off across Bulldog Lake, Foye pulls out his ice safety system. It's a set of ropes and carabeiners that we'll use to link ourselves together while walking about 25 feet apart. Foye says he needs to give a short lesson. "If you fall through, you will be in shock for 2 to 3 minutes. The ropes will keep you from sinking, but you will go crazy. You will not be able to think. Then at 3 minutes you will calm down, and I will throw you these."

He holds up two things that look like ice picks. "You catch them and claw your way back onto the ice."

Todd raises his hand, "Uh, I don't like the part about waiting for 3 minutes. I mean, what if I don't go crazy – couldn't I claw my way out sooner?"

"If I throw them before 3 minutes, you won't catch them," Foye says. The Scout leader stands resolute: you go in, it's a three-minute swim.

Foye tells us to avoid the mouth of the channel and stumps or pilings, because that's where ice is weak, and we move out across the lake. All goes well, and in about an hour we stand at the base of a 30-foot bluff, on top of which is the small field where we'll make our home. Home, of course is a relative term here, since it is simply a trench we'll dig in four feet of snow, with a tarp spread over the top. Todd and I in one trench, Foye and St. John in another trench, burrowed in for a -10 degree night.

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