Winter Camping in Northern Michigan Upper Peninsula

There is no scent today. An astringent winter wind off Lake Superior has scrubbed this frozen beach clean, gathered up all the smells in the region, rolled them out thin as tinfoil—then scattergunned it all into oblivion with pellets of driving snow. There’s nothing but big lake blue and a hint of white stinging my sniffer today. I have a nose full of frozen Finnish flag.

There are three of us. We’re winter camping near Munising at a spot that in the summer has a lot of rules, and in the winter has a few less rules, but it doesn’t matter because we’re not following any of them anyway. Today we came several miles cross country over a quilted landscape of frozen creeks and beaver runs, the sort of route that in summer would be a mix of merciless tag alders and knee-deep boot-slurping suck-holes. But all of that mess, and the park rules, are frozen tight and tucked in for the season below an ample cushion of snow. Our skis glide right over.

Winter doesn’t transform just the landscape; my friends and I are more hushed as well. We move inland, pushing upstream in silence, cross the lake and sidestep up the lee of a bluff to our campsite. The extended, early dusk of the season settles in as we hustle to make wood and set camp.

We are an engineer, a financial planner and a journalist. In the real world we carry very different loads, but here, today, on a snowy ledge we’re remarkably similar, working quietly and efficiently at a common task. The forest floor below is a rolling uniform carpet of white. Those bumps we skied over to get here could be logs, maybe rocks or stumps, but right now they’re all the same, corners rounded and angles softened by the season of sleep.

Camping in winter makes you realize that warmth is a matter of perspective. When you’re surrounded by the candy-sweet warmth of your home, a step out into the north wind to crank your car hits you like a punch in the teeth. But when it’s reversed, and you’re living every minute of the day in the snow, something as simple as a sip from a steaming Thermos is reason enough to keep on living.

I stand barefoot on my empty pack, strip off the day’s sweat-soaked and steaming travel clothes. I pause before the elements, helpless as the day I was born, but knowing very much that I am alive, before quickly layering back up in dry camp clothes and scrambling to the fire.  The fresh thermal underwear is radiating my own heat back to me like a thousand suns, and the fire melts snowflakes from our eyebrows as we grin and stamp our feet.

People ask us why we do this, but we’re not real sure ourselves, so we just tell them:

No bugs.

No bears.

Nobody.

This article and additional photos are also available in the December issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Subscribe now!

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