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CAYUGA I knew better than to whine or flee the shack as my wife came at me last Saturday with two apples, two beers, a water bottle, potato chips, venison wieners, two grilling sticks, mustard, pickle relish and a bag of hot-dog buns.

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Penny was making sure our foursome wouldn't starve during our daylong snowshoe tromp into the Chequamegon National Forest in Ashland County. Our plan was to leave Tom Heberlein's shack on the Conley Road and head southeast to explore the woods, bogs and old beaver flowages beyond.

I assured Penny I could squeeze her virtual chuckwagon into my daypack, though it already held camera equipment, hiking/scouting gear and first-aid/emergency supplies. I also declined offers from our Waunakee friends, Tim and Karen Watson, to carry some of Penny's provisions. Had I protested or shifted the burden, I risked an icy reminder that it was my turn to be accommodating.

After all, I had been allowed to choose the day's route and destination. Plus, they had followed me over windfalls and snowdrifts Thursday afternoon to retrieve the camp's tree-stand cushions left behind during deer season.

Tim and I dodged questions about why we hadn't brought the cushions in after our muzzleloading hunts. Why? Because it wasn't convenient at the time. We had sat till dark and were numb with cold. We just wanted to get back to the warm shack.

Such reasons sound weak when sitting in that same warm shack 10 weeks later blood circulating, fingers functioning so we didn't expect or receive knowing nods.

Besides, wasn't cushion-fetching now a tradition on this, our sixth annual snowshoeing trip?

If you must ask, you know it's not.

So, I secured our food, saddled up the daypack and verified my compass, GPS unit and iPhone were in convenient pockets. We then strapped on our wooden snowshoes and shuffled single-file through Heberlein's red-pine cathedral. From there we eased down the slope and past his frozen pond and 10-year-old poplar cut before departing his 40 acres.

According to my iPhone's topo map app, our destination was 1.3 kilometers away, or 0.81 miles. Assuming twists, turns and other detours around fallen trees and impassable brush, the actual snowshoeing distance was likely about a mile. And figuring we'd be breaking a trail in 30 inches of fluffy snow and pausing to examine tracks, buck rubs and other curiosities we'd reach the site in 90 minutes, about lunchtime.

Our destination on the topo map was a tiny circle bulging between three tight contour lines, indicating the high spot of a long, twisting ridgeline. Twice during past deer seasons I had crossed the Iron River once on ice, once on a beaver dam to hunt the site. Both times I turned back, frustrated by deep mud, tangled alders and dwindling daylight.

This day was different. The bogs, marshes and river were mostly frozen. And what wasn't ice was covered by slush and deep snow, which we crossed easily on snowshoes.

There's something relaxing about exploring this forest in winter. Unlike deer season, you don't worry about your scent, fickle winds or sticks snapping underfoot. Neither do you fret you'll find another hunter who matches your determination to find solitude far from the nearest road.

No, you just pick an intriguing place on the map that overlaps lands you already know, and see what it looks like in person. By scouting new pieces each winter, you gradually put a face to the map's colors, symbols and contour lines.

And if you find buck rubs and a good vantage point, you mull whether it's worth the long, wet, muddy walks by headlamp come November's deer season. Such decisions are personal, of course, so you just smile when reaching your destination at midday in February, and your wife asks: "Are you nuts? What if you get one way back in here?"

A fair question, no doubt, but you wonder if she's implying something. Such as? Well, how can you hope to drag a buck out of here when you can't retrieve seat cushions from deer stands only half as far?

That, too, is a question whose answer sounds weak when you're far from the scene and its elements.

Patrick Durkin is a free-lance writer who covers outdoor recreation for the Press-Gazette. E-mail him at patrickdurkin@charter.net.

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