Adventure Articles
Winter Hardships at Ottertrack – 1946

This article was published in the winter 2007
issue of the
Boundary Waters Journal magazine.
Young Woman of Twenty-three Years and Six Year Old Girl Survive Winter Encounter Hardships at Ottertrack–1946


Helen Sue Manzo and Marco John Manzo III.


In 1945, Ben and Val Ambrose, the sole inhabitants on Ottertrack Lake for many years, had one daughter, six-year old Bonnie (Ottertrack Lake is a border lake shared by the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and Quetico Provincial Park). Val had been staying with friends in Duluth, Minnesota, awaiting the birth of their second child. By early January 1946, Val had given birth to their second daughter, Holly. Val sent word to her close friend Virginia "Dinna" Clayton, who was wintering at Seagull Lake. She asked Dinna if she would travel to Ottertrack Lake to take care of Bonnie while Ben came out to be with her in Duluth.

Dinna related: "Ben was taking care of Bonnie at Ottertrack—she was six then. They were all alone down there—isolated as usual—that's Benny. Val wanted to come back and Ben had to go get her, but she couldn't see taking Bonnie all that way, and there was no place to take care of her in Duluth as Val was staying at Emerson Morris' brother's home. Val had gotten word to me, and she asked if I'd go to Ottertrack to take care of Bonnie while Ben went out and got her. They had to find a place to stay, as she wasn't going to take the baby to Ottertrack until warmer weather."

Dinna, with only her packsack and her new Michigan style snowshoes, snowshoed over to Willard Waters who lived on Seagull Lake. "So, I flew with Willard Waters in his ski-equipped plane, and we landed in Ottertrack, and Ben flew out with him," said Dinna. "When I got there, it was 25 degrees below zero. Bonnie was standing in the tent doorway, and she had the worst cold I've ever seen. Her nose was running and her eyes were watering. The only clothing she had on was a t-shirt and little overalls with her hands tucked inside the bib of her overalls. She had socks and shoes on, but she didn't have any winter clothes on at all. The tent had logs half way up the walls, and a plank floor. The tent had been thereI don't know how many years, but it wasn't in very good shape.  There was a little airtight heater in the corner, and a big bunk (double bed), with an eiderdown on it—otherwise you would have frozen up. There was a little table and some cupboards built in—as much as [a tent would accommodate]. There was a fire going in the tent—it was warm inside the tent, but it took plenty to keep that place warm. Ben had told me, when the wood pile was gone, where to get wood. But, I didn't want to freeze up down there, so we went down the lake every single day to cut wood."

"After the first couple of days," Dinna said, "I knew what was going to happen as Ben had told me, 'I'll be back Sar-day', (as Ben would say Saturday in his Bohemian accent). But with Ben, you didn't know which month that Saturday was going to fall in. So, I knew I was going to be there for a while."  About four days after I had been down there, I asked Bonnie, 'Where has your dad got all the canned goods? in the ice house?' As Ben just said in parting, 'Bonnie knows where all the grub is cached.'  Bonnie replied, 'No, it's in the lake.' I said, 'In the lake?' She says, 'Yah, come on, I'll show you'."

Dinna and Bonnie put on their winter clothing to go down the trail to the lake. Dinna was surprised to find that the canned goods were buried under the ice in gunny sacks so the cans would not freeze and burst. There were two gunny sacks tied onto a long pole. It took Dinna two days to chip through the layers of ice, slush and water to get down to the cache.  She pulled one sack up and opened it, relieved to have finally secured the cache of canned goods. When she looked inside the first gunny sack, there wasn't a label on any of the cans, as the water had dissolved the labels' glue. She had a general idea of what kind of canned goods were to be found, but without the labels she did not know what was in which can. Dinna recalled, "I took a half a dozen cans so I wouldn't have to chop a new hole every day. After a few days of opening mostly beans, I noticed there was a code stamped on the top of each can, so I began cataloging the contents according to each code333as I didn't want to open beans every day. So we did pretty well. Each night, we had to put everything that we didn't want to freeze at the foot of the bed under the eiderdown. In the morning, everything else would be frozen solid, because you couldn't keep a fire in a tent all night."

"I knew that I had better begin cutting wood each day," continued Dinna. "We had to tramp a trail down the lake, so it would freeze overnight, because Ottertrack freezes in layers—it is snow, slush, water and ice—in just layers and layers until you're almost at the bottom of the lake. So both of us got our snowshoes on—Bonnie with her little snowshoes—and we tramped a trail for the toboggan down the lake about a mile and a half.  Then every day we would go down and cut wood, we also had this steep hill, and there was a cliff on the other side of the hill. So, after doing this for a week, I figured I would save a little energy and make this task a little easier. It took a lot of energy to cut wood every day, plus cook and take care of Bonnie—just to exist took all my energy."

Dinna's daily chores consisted of chopping a hole in the ice to haul water, besides cutting wood each day. She would cut the trees down with a Swede saw and would limb the trees with an axe and the saw. She would then saw the trees into short lengths for the small airtight heater, plus split the wood and make kindling.

Attempting to make the daily wood cutting chore a little easier, Dinna narrowly escaped a life-threatening plunge, as she related: "One day at the bottom of the cliff I left our toboggan and  told Bonnie that I was just going to throw the logs over the edge of the cliff down to the lake, so we didn't have to haul them all the way back around on our trail. So Bonnie snowshoed up to the top of the cliff with me and stayed while I sawed down the trees with a Swede saw. Then I told her, 'Okay, Bonnie, you put your snowshoes back on and go down the trail, while I throw the logs over the cliff.'  She said, 'Okay.' She was very obedient, you would tell her something, and she would do it immediately. I dragged the logs over to the cliff, and by that time she was down on the lake waiting by the toboggan, and I told her to get back so the logs wouldn't hit her when they came down. I threw all the logs down, and then thought, 'I'm not going to walk all the way around that trail, I'm going to slide right down.' There was plenty of snow, and it was a beautiful chute down to the lake. So I slid down the cliff, but [to my horror], I kept going right under the ice! Before I knew it, I was under the ice up to my waist in icy water! At the last second, using every ounce of energy that I could muster, I threw myself forward to stop from going any farther under the ice. Was I scared! and it was plenty cold, too. Somehow I managed to pull myself out of the water and ice, and Bonnie was just screaming. She was really scared. But I was thinking, 'If something happens to me, what is going to happen to Bonnie?' She would never survive by herself there. I had slid down right next to the shore where the sun had melted the ice from the shore a little bit. But at the edge of the cliff, the water is very deep, it isn't like stepping out on a rocky, shallow shore. I was very fortunate that I didn't slide farther under the ice. So I tied the logs on the toboggan and took them back to camp. Once back at camp, I changed into dry clothes right away, then got the wood stove going. Somehow I never even got a cold out of it."

On the 17th of February, 1946, Dinna had been alone with Bonnie on Ottertrack for about a month and a half, and it happened to be her 24th birthday. Dinna asked Bonnie, "Well, how am I going to bake a birthday cake?" Bonnie said, "Well, Mom's got cake in the ice house—good fruit cake." It had been there a long time, ever since Bonnie could remember. (Dinna found out later that it had been there for ten years.) Dinna said, "Okay, let's go over there." So they broke trail through four feet of snow, and shoveled out an entrance to get in the ice house. To Dinna's surprise, Bonnie knew exactly where it was buried. They found the cake only frozen about two feet deep in the sawdust, because all the snow had drifted in and insulated it.  So they dug it up, and the ten-year old fruit cake served as Dinna's birthday cake. Dinna said that it tasted very good and had been well preserved all those years, because Val had soaked the top of the cake with brandy.

That afternoon heavy clouds began to roll in, and the winds picked up in intensity. Dinna said to Bonnie that they were really in for a storm. Bonnie said, "It doesn't feel good."  They had a good stack of wood in the tent, and Dinna had made bread a couple of days before, so they went to bed early. Dinna said that they normally went to bed at dark, anyway, because she couldn't stay up and read or anything, and she had to get up early each day to get the fire going and thaw out everything in the tent.

About midnight they found they were in the middle of a raging blizzard. "I heard this terrific rip!" Dinna related. "One of the main seams in the tent roof had torn wide open and snow was blowing in. It was a terrible blizzard—it was just roaring. I said, 'Bonnie, wake up!' She said, 'I don't want to, I'm cold.' I said, 'You're going to be colder if you don't'."

"With a flashlight, I found some pins," continued Dinna, "and pinned it with safety pins, but I knew that wouldn't hold—the tent was so old. I figured it was going to rip again. I knew I would have to sew it, so I got up and got dressed and found the buckskin needle and heavy thread. I kneeled on the bed to sew the torn seam, and wrapped Bonnie in the eiderdown, so she wouldn't freeze up, and had her hold the flashlight for me. My arms became so tired, and I was freezing. I also had a Coleman lantern on the table, and the wind was blowing so hard it nearly blew it out. I finally finished, and we went back to sleep. About an hour later the same disaster occurred again! The seam next to the one I had just sewn ripped apart, also. So I had to go through the whole process all over again. Attempting to cheer Bonnie I said, 'Don't worry, Bonnie, we'll survive—we're tough'.

A few days later they were low on bread, so Dinna needed to bake bread again. Early on, she had engineered a way to bake bread without an oven or stove. Dinna described, "All there was was a little airtight stove in the tent and a small tin [gas] Coleman stove outside. But with the winds and cold outside it was impossible to bake. I built a lean-to with all the boards and doors that Ben had around there for his cabin that he was going to build. I just put the stove in there, and then this little tin oven would do two loaves at a time. While the bread was rising in the tent, I had to keep turning it all the time because the side that was towards the wall of the tent would freeze, and the side towards the airtight would bake—I had brown on the one side of each loaf and freeze on the other. I had to stay right there and continually turn it so it would rise, then go out to the lean-to to bake it."

On February 28, Dinna and Bonnie, after surviving alone at Ottertrack for nearly two months in arduous winter conditions, were relieved when Ben finally arrived by snowshoe to take them back to Seagull Lake. Dinna recounted, "So, Ben, Bonnie and I snowshoed out of there. Every time we'd go about 100 yards, Ben would say, 'Well, I've got an axe back here I've got to pick up.' This went on all the way to Seagull Lake. Ben had food stuff, tea pails, pots, axes or whatever stored all over the country so he could camp anywhere at a moment's notice if conditions forced him to camp. We stopped at Beaverhouse portage and had lunch. When we got down past Beaverhouse on a wide stretch, Ben again said he had something back in the woods he wanted to get. He said, 'You just head right for Baird's Island.' This was on the 'big lake' on Saganaga Lake.  Bonnie and I started snowshoeing across there, and all of a sudden I couldn't see! I was snow blind—my eyes hurt terribly. I went down on my knees, and Bonnie said, 'What's the matter?' I said, 'I can't see.' She knew there was something really wrong, but she said, 'You just stay here, put your back to the sun, and put your hood over your head. My dad will come around soon and take care of you.' Ben caught up to us about ½ hour later, and I was down on the ice.  When he saw us out there, he thought something was wrong with Bonnie. But when he realized that I was snow blind, he said, 'Oh, I'll fix that.' So he hiked all the way back up to the woods and got some birch bark and made me 'snow glasses' out of birch bark and beaver twine and tied them around my head to shade my eyes. He had made tiny slits in the birch bark, so I could barely see just enough to continue, but my eyes were mostly shaded. We had come out of Ottertrack over Monument portage and then across Swamper portage, which was mostly shaded and then had lunch at Beaverhouse portage. When we started to cross the wide open expanse of Saganaga Lake, the sun was high in the sky and really beating off the snow which caused my snow blindness. I had quite a bit of pain for two or three days after that."

Dinna continued, "We were then able to get onto the main trail leading down the channel of Saganaga, where Jock Richardson's horse had a pretty good trail beaten there. But you can't walk in 'horse steps.' The "horse steps" were just a little too far for our snowshoe stride, and we kept sliding off the trail into powder. So we had to break a whole new trail. But Bonnie was just buzzing along on her little snowshoes—she could go like a fly. We finally got down to Seagull Lake after snowshoeing 22 miles. We all stayed at Seagull until spring."

Val was relieved to see us and overjoyed to see Bonnie after being separated from her for so long.

Today, Dinna has fond, happy memories of all the mishaps and frights of that cold winter of 1946.


There is a memorial plaque honoring Ben Ambrose mounted on a cliff across from Ben's homestead on Ottertrack Lake. The plaque had been crafted by Ben's friend, John Bouchard, a well respected, long-time conservation officer that had served on Saganaga Lake.

After this winter wilderness endurance test for Dinna, the following fall, November 2, 1946, she married Art Madsen and moved to Saganaga Lake (See BWJ Fall 2000 article "Art Madsen, The Original Quetico Ranger"). Art Madsen and Ben Ambrose, both long-time legends in the area, had been close wilderness friends since 1931. They hunted, guided, trapped and prospected together, and also stocked many secret lakes with fish in the 1930's and '40's. Dinna, now aged 85 still resides on Saganaga Lake.


Acknowledgement and thanks go to Shirley Peruniak for initially interviewing Dinna about this story. Helen Sue Manzo and Marco Manzo III are daughter and grandson of Art and Dinna Madsen.

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