Swamp Lake, Minn. The tarp is strung. The fire is crackling. Three of us are hunkered there in the dark, the firelight illuminating our faces.
We are warm. We are happy. We have found this tiny opening in the woods and made it a snug home for the night.
It's early December in the canoe country. The lakes are mostly frozen, though we've been careful to check the ice as we go. Four inches most places. Not bad.
We are sitting atop our still-stuffed sleeping bags or still-rolled ground pads. We have shoveled a small snowbank behind the fire and propped logs against it. This wall reflects the fire's heat toward us. The tarp behind us reflects some heat on to our backs.
It is always surprising how little it takes to be warm and comfortable in the woods.
Sometimes when I talk to people about camping in the winter, they say, "I couldn't do that. I don't like to be cold."
And I always wonder, do they think those of us who winter camp enjoy being cold? Or that we're somehow impervious to the effects of cold? It isn't that way, of course. None of us wants to be cold, or not for long. So, we do what it takes to get warm.
The conversation rolls gently from one topic to another. The characteristics of ice. Runaway dog teams. How the Greenland Inuit lace their mukluks.
We talk, too, about the simplicity of life on the trail. Our needs on this trip are few. Enough wood for the fire. A little water from a hole chipped in the lake. A little food from our packs. A place to roll out a sleeping bag. The tarp for a roof over our heads.
Occasionally, one of us will wander away from camp and out onto the lake. We check the sky. Venus low and gold in the south. Mars hanging out by the moon. The silver light of the half-moon splashed across the lake. And silence broken only by the groaning of the lake as it makes ice.
Standing on the ice in this immensity of night, you become acutely aware of your place in the universe. You look at the ice before you, an island in the foreground, the jagged black of the distant shore. Then your mind tries to wrap itself around the moon and the stars and the great black beyond.
You feel incredibly small. And yet completely at home.
The three of us are gathered again under the tarp, telling stories, when we suddenly stop talking. We have all heard it. A chorus of howling, and not far off.
Sled dogs? One of us is a Grand Marais musher. He considers the question. No, he says. No mushers live close enough to where we are.
The crying comes again, low and mournful. We have seen wolf tracks on the lake and on the trail that brought us here. A single howl answers the larger pack. The pack howls in return. They can't be more than a half-mile off, maybe even less.
A nice touch.
Here we thought we had it all -- food, shelter, fire, sky. And now this. A reminder that we are not the only ones here. A reminder that while we make our little trips into the wilderness, there are others who call it home.
Nice place they have here.