See more of the story

On the first night of a winter camping trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, Allison McVay-Steer lay awake inside her sleeping bag, shivering. Frigid air streamed in through the small opening she had left near her face. She contemplated snowshoeing back to her friend's car for the comfort of its heater, but shoved the idea away. She had no idea where to find the keys. More important, her 16-year-old daughter, Amelie, slept soundly by her side. On the other side of their tent's canvas wall, though, air temperatures had plummeted to 40 below.

A powerful and stubborn polar vortex had set in. So had McVay-Steer's fear.

"I had to bring her home to her dad alive," the mother of two recently joked.

The challenging winter weekend was part of a plan they'd hatched last summer. In the midst of a horrible year, when the COVID pandemic limited so much of their lives, the mother and daughter found a way to instead expand their world — at least for four weekends. The two would head to Minnesota's great northern wilderness once each season, determined to claim some joy and adventure in an upended world.

When the idea was born, Amelie had already given up a solo trip to visit relatives in England for six weeks last summer. She was also going to miss out on two camps, which had been canceled due to the pandemic. Her freshman year ended with distance learning, away from her friends.

A nurse practitioner, Allison had been promoted to medical director of the M Health Fairview Clinic-Eagan just days before Minnesota locked down, and faced the stress of keeping clients, staff and herself safe from the mysterious and scary new virus. With 50- to 60-hour workweeks in the early months of the pandemic, she was barely home.

Amid such apprehension and isolation, Allison and Amelie found refuge in nature, like so many other Minnesotans. But this was way beyond a day hike. Their escapes involved extensive planning, canoe portages, the help of friends — and lots of winter gear.

After that fitful night of sleep on a frozen lake in February, Allison rose tired and worried. Then Amelie unzipped her sleeping bag, stretched her arms out and said, "That was the best sleep I've ever had."

Four seasons of the BWCA

Last summer, after distance learning and lockdown had kept them apart, Amelie and her closest friends persuaded their mothers to take them on a weekend trip to the Boundary Waters. All the teens had missed out on summer camps. Allison was worried about Amelie's mental health and knew the trip would be fun for her to anticipate and plan.

After discussing protocols with the other mothers, one of whom was a nurse working with COVID patients, the trip was set. Three mothers and four teen girls set out in July; the girls canoed and tented with their mothers to maintain distance from other family groups. They wore masks in close quarters, as essential for protection as bug spray.

Still, one afternoon, the moms sat on a rock ledge overlooking a sparkling lake while the girls' chatter carried on the air. "I almost forgot about COVID," Allison said.

For the fall trip in mid-October, Allison and Amelie were joined by Allison's friend Maria Eaton and her dog, Shadow, on a trip that turned out to be perfectly timed. Peak autumn color had hit, and golden leaves blanketed the campsites. Pleasant weather converged with Allison and Amelie's burgeoning confidence, camping savvy and desire to challenge themselves. They paddled so deep into the wilderness during that fall weekend that on the last day, they portaged 18 times to reach their exit point.

That particular excursion came when COVID was popping and a spike in cases was rising. "The trip was a nice distraction," Allison said.

Maria, a nurse at Children's Minnesota, had once worked at Camp Menogyn, a YMCA camp with weekslong trips into the Boundary Waters. (It's a camp that Amelie has attended since 2018, except for last year, when the camp was canceled.) Maria was key to the winter trip, too. The friend whom Allison calls "my camp counselor" brought gear, winter camping know-how plus enthusiasm and a calm demeanor.

The three campers spent Friday night of Presidents' Day Weekend in Cloquet so they could head into the Boundary Waters on Saturday morning with enough time to set up camp before sunset. With a forecast calling for Arctic conditions, Maria suggested they alter their route so they could park her car close to the main road in case it wouldn't start when they came out, two days later. She'd had a new battery installed before the trip for safe measure and stowed jumper cables just in case.

In the parking lot, the trio piled up their gear, strapped on snowshoes and set off across a frozen lake into the wilderness. Each pulled a sled laden with supplies, including a winter tent outfitted with a wood-burning stove, sleeping mats, tarps and fruits and vegetables that would freeze so hard they were difficult to eat.

After two hours and one portage, they set up camp and settled down for the night.

Except Allison never quite settled. After what Amelie calls "Mom's freak-out night," Allison confessed that she would feel more comfortable if they had wood — lots of wood — to fuel the stove that heated the tent. So, the small group of down-clad campers embarked on what they came to call "the wood processing plant." Maria found a tree felled by beavers and carted it in pieces to near the tent area. Allison sawed the tree trunks into smaller sections. Amelie split the wood with a hatchet. They wound up with so much firewood that they brought some back to the parking area when they left, as a kind of welcome gift for other campers.

The second night, with chopped wood piled high, Allison slept better — when she wasn't awake feeding the fire.

"I realized, 'I'm not actually cold. I am scared of being cold,' " she said.

Wilderness lessons

Allison hid the extent of her first night's fears from Amelie. "As a mom, you don't want to let in all the crazy to your kids," she said.

After they'd returned home and the full truth became clear, the teen chided her mom. "I think you should tell me these things," Amelie said. When you're camping — especially winter camping — you rely on one another and need to work as a team.

Amelie had demonstrated that teamwork on each trip. "She volunteers to do the dishes. She cooks meals. She cleans up camp. She splits wood, apparently," Allison said.

Allison enjoyed seeing her daughter happily do chores in the wilderness that she may have ignored at home. But the winter trip showed her something more profound: "Allison's strength was really powerful to me."

Allison has begun to think about what sort of trip she can make with her 13-year-old daughter, Adele, who is not a camping enthusiast. "You want to do something special with each of your daughters," she said.

In the meantime, she and Amelie are keeping Adele in mind as they plan for the last trip of the quartet to the Boundary Waters — because she will be coming along.

To cap the four seasons, the mother and daughter duo are prepping for a two-night trip in mid-May with the entire family, including Adele and husband and dad, Ceri Steer. Neither has been to the wilderness area before. The trip is planned for maximum ease and, with any luck, family fun. It will last a brief two nights, they'll bring relative luxuries such as towels, and they expect to limit portages to one.

Said Allison, "I am looking forward to seeing [Amelie] teach her sister and father a few things."

Correction: A previous version incorrectly referred to Camp Menogyn as a girls camp.