GUNFLINT TRAIL, NORTH OF GRAND MARAIS, Minn. - On a bright March afternoon, a procession of winter travelers moved across the crusted snow atop Bearskin Lake like some human-powered freight train. Three dads, four daughters - and Gimli, the aging Labrador, out front.
The girls, 16 to 18 years old, chatted and laughed as they marched along, leaning into the traces of sleds they pulled that were loaded with winter camping gear. Their dads - Bob Feyen, Jesse Schomberg and Kevin Skwira-Brown - were part of the procession, each towing his share of the gear.
For 10 years now, these dads and daughters from the Duluth area have been making a winter camping trek, nearly always into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness off the Gunflint Trail. The Skwira-Browns - Kevin and daughters Katherine, 18, and Rachel, 16; along with Schomberg and daughter Isabelle, 18 - started the tradition when Katherine and Isabelle were just second-graders. A couple years later, the Feyens - Bob and daughter Hannah, now 17 - joined the crew.
"Kevin and I had done this before," Schomberg said. "I had a tent and heater. We were talking about it and said the girls could come. They'd have fun. They could bring a friend."
It evolved into a tradition.
"We thought they'd outgrow it, but no," Bob Feyen said. "Last year it was, 'Are we going?'"
"This is probably one of my favorite weekends of the entire year, to be with such good friends in such a nice place," Hannah Feyen said.
On this 32-degree March afternoon, the gang was headed for Daniels Lake, one portage into the Boundary Waters. The group would camp there for three days, all piling into Schomberg's canvas wall tent warmed at night by a propane heater. Bonus warmth would accrue to whomever slept next to Gimli, the Schombergs' dog.
It must have been something on those early trips, when the girls were young and the dads would have been hauling nearly all of the gear. But even then, the girls did their share.
"The rules, from the beginning, were that everyone has to pull a sled," Kevin Skwira-Brown said. "So, in the early years, they had these little tiny sleds with a couple of sleeping bags. ... Even in those early years, they were up in the woods, collecting firewood. We taught 'em how to use a saw. They were cutting firewood..."
Now, the girls pull full-size sleds loaded with gear. Along a shore near a 100-foot cliff on Daniels Lake, the group went about making camp. It was obvious they had done this before. Schomberg and a couple girls pitched the tent. Feyen began shoveling out a kitchen area. Skwira-Brown started drilling holes for water and lake trout fishing. Bodies disappeared into the wooded shores and returned with armloads of firewood. The sawyers took over and bucked the wood into campfire lengths.
Stories to tell
With camp set, the girls retreated to the tent and cozied together in a shaft of warm sunlight coming through the door. Family friends since their early days, they reeled off story after story of previous trips. Most of those memories revolved around the "adventuring" escapades the girls make on every trip.
"One time, we got lost," Hannah Feyen said.
"We got off the trail and were just bushwhacking," Katherine Skwira-Brown remembered. "I'd say, 'This is clearly the trail' - but it wasn't. Then we came into another lake."
"We were reading the map to see how to get back to our lake," Feyen said. "And we were behind a cliff, so it seemed like the sun was going down. I thought we were going to have to sleep out there."
But that time, like all the others, they made a safe return to camp.
Rachel Skwira-Brown recalled an incident when she was much younger.
"We were walking across a bay one time, and it was slushy," she said. "I lost a boot in the slush."
"I was like, 'Dad! Come and help us!' " her sister Katherine said. "But he just yelled back, 'You can figure it out.'"
They did: "Izzy (Isabelle) came and picked me up and ran me back to shore," Rachel said.
Lying in the tent, the girls would convulse in laughter at each of these memories.
They love these trips.
"There's something about going so far away from Duluth and leaving the phones in the glove compartment and just being here for three days of talking," Katherine said.
"And it IS three days of talking!" Hannah added.
"I just like getting away from everything," Rachel said. "It refreshes me. It gets me through the rest of the school year."
Their dads know what's happening when their daughters venture away from camp, what the girls are learning without even knowing it. That was the idea behind these trips in the beginning.
"It's just to get them outside and get them comfortable with winter camping," Jesse Schomberg said. "I'm hoping they take away some confidence to do things that sound hard or risky or dangerous."
Saturday, the middle day of the trip, is always adventuring day. After a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs with venison sausage and the Schombergs' garden salsa, the girls checked out a map with their dads to make a plan.
"Let's go to Canada!" Katherine said.
They took off down Daniels Lake and hoped to follow a lengthy portage into Rose Lake on the Canadian border. Alas, the snow on the portage was deep and the trail too long. The girls came snowshoeing back to Daniels as the day's light was fading.
The challenge of those day trips is part of what Kevin Skwira-Brown hoped his daughters would find on these annual outings. Even when his daughters were in grade school, he wanted to expose them to that kind of experience.
"I was taking my kids to the father/daughter dance every February," he said, "and that's a great event. I thought, I want to celebrate more than they're beautiful, which they are. I wanted to celebrate that they're strong, they're smart, and they're able to do things that are hard as well."
Evening in camp
While the girls were away, the dads had fished for lake trout and caught several. The biggest was 18 or 19 inches long. The fillets would fit nicely in the frying pan.
Around the fire during the evenings, there was plenty of time for conversation that ranged from college entrance exams to possible career choices to raising chickens.
The quarter-moon rose over the cliffs, haloed by a milky ring. The temperature dropped, and chairs were scooted closer to the fire. Firelight danced on young faces.
Nobody in the group is quite sure how long these trips might continue. Two of the girls - Katherine and Izzy - will be adventuring off to college this fall.
But the dads are already looking well down the road, imagining their girls as adults, Jesse Schomberg said after the trip. The dads have an idea.
"Bob and Kevin and I joked that maybe they'll pull us out there someday when we're old and decrepit," he said.
Dads and daughters
Making their annual winter camping trip to the Boundary Waters were:
Jesse Schomberg, Lakewood Township, Minn.
Isabelle "Izzy" Schomberg, 18, Lakewood Township, Minn.
Kevin Skwira-Brown, Duluth
Katherine Skwira-Brown, 18, Duluth
Rachel Skwira-Brown, 16, Duluth
Bob Feyen, Duluth
Hannah Feyen, 17, Duluth