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Members of the Wingnuts winter camping group on Snowbank Lake divide themselves into two teams, the Flounders and the Eelpouts, for annual games that include boot hockey, kickball, golf and human curling. (Steve Kuchera/Duluth News Tribune/MCT)

For three decades, these campers have been crazy for winter

ELY, Minn. -- Night had settled over the Wingnut encampment on Snowbank Lake. The big wall tent radiated lantern light from within. Moonlight illuminated the surface of the lake. A row of tiki torches, orange flames dancing in the night, lit the path from a campfire on shore to the tent pitched on the ice.

For 30 winters now, this group of northern Minnesotans and their far-flung friends have been returning to camp on Snowbank Lake east of Ely every January. Many of them are now in their 50s or early 60s, but still they come to live simply at the edge of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

"It's doing something in the middle of winter when there's nothing else to do," explained John George, 56, of Carlton, Minn.

George was on that first trip, back in 1984, when six members of the original party camped by Harri's Island near the middle of this 4,600-acre lake.

"We were ill-equipped," George said. "We made a quinzhee (snow house). It failed."

But the crew persevered and each year has learned a little more about winter camping. They perfected the art of snow house construction, building the snow huts to accommodate up to 18 campers. The group camps just outside the border of the Boundary Waters, where group size is not limited by regulations. Only in the past five years have they graduated to a 12-by-20-foot wall tent.

The campers always return to Snowbank when full-on winter grips the north country. They were camped here in 1996, the year Tower, just down the road from Ely, broke Minnesota's cold record at 60 below.

Over 10 days this January, 14 campers came to the Wingnut gathering from northern Minnesota, the Chicago area and Kentucky. Some stayed for the duration, others for a few days.

BECOMING WINGNUTS

Original members of the group, winter camping long before it became popular, realized early on they were a little different. After that first trip, they dubbed themselves the Wingnuts. The name stuck. Now they publish a Wingnut newsletter. There's a Wingnut Facebook page. They wear Wingnut hockey jerseys emblazoned with the Wingnut logo, a winged snow house. A whiskery Wingnut talisman presides over the camp.

The tent was pitched just offshore near a public landing. The location was hardly remote, but with few cabins nearby and lots of U.S. Forest Service land around, the campers might as well have been in the wilderness. In a sense, the tent served as a base camp for almost daily snowshoe treks down the lake.

"We like to do day trips, so you get that ruggedness," George said, "but it's nice to come back to a warm tent and dry out."

The Wingnuts are well-known to the Snowbank Lake community, including Smitty's Resort. One of the Wingnuts, Cam Zwolinski of Ogden, Utah, married Becky Smith, the daughter of the resort's owners, Ron and Julie Smith. Usually once during the group's annual stay, local musher "Basswood" Bob Oliva swings by for dinner.

NOT LIKE HOME

Most of the men have friends back home who think they're a little odd living on the ice for a week to 10 days each winter. George's childhood friend John Watkins, a college professor and 28-year Wingnut, now lives in Lexington, Ky. Friends back in Lexington just don't understand the allure of winter camping.

"They think I'm totally an idiot," Watkins said.

This year, Aaron Cory, a 25-year-old deputy sheriff from Chicago, was making his first trip with the group. On this January night, he stood near the campfire, looking out over the moonlit expanse of the lake. Not another light shone across the snow.

"It's a lot different than being around Chicago," he said. "I'm having a blast."

TRIAL AND ERROR

The evolution of the group's camping techniques has not always been smooth. Perhaps overthinking snow-house construction, the campers once tried inflating huge bladders someone had found, then piling snow atop the bladders. The thought process apparently went like this: "Hmm. Let's see. How to inflate the bladders? Hey, how about truck exhaust? Yeah. That should work. Let's hook up a hose."

The bladders inflated, all right. But when they were deflated, the snow house deflated, too.

The tent has solved a lot of those issues, but the crew still builds a snow house every year for those who prefer the complete winter camping experience. This year, they also constructed an igloo from blocks of packed snow.

LET THE GAMES BEGIN

With plenty of time on their hands each winter, the Wingnuts have found ways to burn calories while camping. The camp splits into arch-rival groups called the Eelpouts and the Flounders -- yes, there are hockey jerseys for those, too -- and goes cold-toe-to-toe in rousing games of boot hockey, kickball and "human curling," in which fellow campers on saucers are slung down the ice toward a target.

All or parts of these contests are played on cleared lake ice, which guarantees thrills and spills.

"No one ever got seriously injured, but I've thrown a few stitches in," said George, a registered nurse.

The new sport in camp this year was bowling, played on a shoveled lane of bare ice smoothed with a blowtorch. The bowling balls were spheres of ice that George made from water-filled balloons. Pins, of course, were 10 slender pieces of firewood.

Tory George, 25, of Carlton, went to his knees and, with a mittened paw, rifled one of the frozen spheres down the ice. He took out four pins with his first ball but couldn't pick up the spare.

In past years, the campers have caught some of Snowbank Lake's lake trout, including some big ones, John George said.

SNOWSHOEING PAST MEMORIES

One afternoon on this year's trip, Watkins and John George, patriarchs of the Wingnuts, made a two-hour snowshoe hike from camp up to Harri's Island and back. On the way back, they pointed across the lake to where they had heard wolves howling one evening. The next morning, they had snowshoed to the spot and discovered the well-picked remains of a deer kill.

On this cold afternoon, the snowshoers were the only living creatures in this expanse of snow and sky and ice. They value the solitude they find on Snowbank in January.

"I like to go out in the middle of the lake at night and feel small," George said. "I think it's the insignificance that makes it so significant."

It's hard to say how many other memories they must have snowshoed by on that afternoon trek. They have 30 years' worth of campfires and snow shelters and northern lights to reflect upon. Mostly, George and Watkins shuffled along in silence, their snowshoes flicking up puffs of white, each man alone with his thoughts.

As they rounded the tip of a final island, the full force of the northwest wind hit them. Sunlight was waning in the late afternoon, and the temperature was headed for 7 below. The cold stung cheeks and penetrated fleece.

But a half-mile ahead, they could see their winter camp tucked in a wind-protected bay, their tent set off against the spruce and jackpine shoreline.

A wisp of smoke rose from the woodstove chimney and curled into the sky. Warmth was waiting.

(c)2014 Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.)

Visit the Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.) at www.duluthnewstribune.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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