QUETICO PROVINCIAL PARK, Ontario -- It was early Sunday morning when I heard the airplane overhead. If the passengers saw us, I was sure we'd be mistaken for moose. This deep in the Canadian wilderness, in the middle of an immense frozen lake, people would assume four slow-moving black dots to be wildlife.
Most of the time they'd be right. We were definitely outnumbered by moose and wolves and white-tail deer. Except for the small town of Atikokan 20 miles away, we were likely to be the only humans for miles in any direction. The plane was the first sign of human life I'd seen since our ski trip began three days before.
That's why we came to this park, 1.2 million acres just over the Canadian border from the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Minnesota. Solitude is just about guaranteed in Quetico during winter, where only 50 to 100 people request permits to camp each year between November and March.
I had invited my father, Chuck, and a friend, Steve Millard, on a ski trip guided by Atikokan-based Quetico Outfitters. We would rely on a network of large, canvas-walled tents and a pair of tepee-like structures called yurts, set up about a dozen miles apart along Quetico's northern boundary.
Groups like ours ski or snowshoe from tent to tent, eliminating the burden of having to make camp every evening. My backpack weighed less than 30 pounds, as the tents had been stocked ahead of time with sleeping bags, air mattresses, and cooking supplies. Our guide, Garth Stromberg, carried most of the food in his backpack and doubled as chef during our three-day trip.
Even with the lightened load, our journey through the park was a serious, strenuous adventure. We spent the first night in a yurt at the drive-in Dawson Trail Campground, then took off the next morning on our 12-mile ski trip. Stromberg paused every few minutes to point out untouched 350-year-old white pines or wolf tracks in the snow. After the first hour, the trail ended and the snow got deep. We coasted downhill onto Pickerel Lake, which stretches more than 24 miles east to west. Most of our time for the next two days would be spent on Pickerel's seemingly endless ice shelf.
A couple of miles from camp, the clouds lowered and the sun grew dim. Daylight became flat and weak. White sky blended with the snow, and there was an almost surreal lack of detail: no color, no topography, no trees or rocks.
Darkness set in as we skied into a bay halfway down the lake and found the gear Stromberg had pulled in on a sled earlier in the week. Because we were his first group of the year to this location, the tent had not been set up yet. Working with the canvas was fascinating. These shelters, which are still made by the 120-year-old Woods Canada company, let you quickly set up an oasis of warmth in an otherwise cold and snowy world. Without such structures, the trappers, explorers, and mining prospectors of the past would have been very uncomfortable.
Meanwhile, Stromberg unpacked the barrel-shaped wood-burning stove and fitted sections of chimney together. After an hour working on the tent, we chopped wood, chipped a hole in the lake ice to get drinking water, and retrieved stones from under the snow for use with the stove. No one minded, though. It was a blast learning how the people of this region had survived the long winters for so many centuries.
Inside the tent -- 12-by-14 feet with a 7-foot sloped ceiling -- we could stretch out, walk around, organize gear, cook, and wash dishes without interfering with one another. We moved the woodpile inside so we wouldn't have to step outside to get logs.
During our three days in January, we saw no one else in the woods and neither heard car noise nor crossed a single road. We skied alongside wolf tracks. We followed the trail of a moose. We saw bright stars. We skied past old-growth forests and pink granite outcroppings. It was beautiful, but I had anticipated all of this. What I didn't expect was the awesome, vast silence.
I stood on the lake alone one evening and looked out into the darkness. I heard nothing but my own heartbeat. This great stillness stretches north a thousand miles to the Arctic. I was humbled -- and I felt privileged and happy to be part of this extraordinary place.
Stephen Regenold is a freelance writer in Minneapolis. He can be reached at email@example.com.