My First Winter-camping
A Cross-country Sledge Trip
By Chris Ozminski
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After a late start and a long drive through the biggest snow storm of the year, Dave Mansfield and I arrived at the snowmobiler's parking lot around Midnight. Michael Neiger - the Trip Leader wasn't there as planned, so we were concerned we were in the wrong place. Since we found nothing was within several miles except snow and roads closed for the season we decided it had to be the designated assembly area.
I could see why Michael chose this area for winter camping. Due to the lake effect, ground-snow was 2 to 3 feet deep, even this early in the season. A mixed hardwood - coniferous forest was sleepy with one to two foot thick snow blankets over every horizontal surface. It was a few degrees above 0 degrees F and large snowflakes were falling steadily.
The snow muffled sound so well that all I could hear were my own movements and snowflakes landing on the tarp. I had made my bivouac in a thick cluster of pines about 50 feet from the parking lot and discovered the "snow blankets" could fall off at the slightest nudge (and slide down my unprotected back of the neck). At 1:00 am it was pretty cozy in my minus 20 degrees F sleeping bag and I was ready for sleep.
While drifting off, I tried to imagine the next five days. My goals for this trip were to have fun and adventure, survive with minimal damage, and learn the skills and techniques required for successful winter camping.
A couple inches of snow had fallen and the sky had cleared before I emerged from the sleeping bag. When I made my way back to the parking lot, I was surprised to hear greetings from the rest of the crew (Michael Neiger, Milton French and Mary Powel) who had arrived during the night. They reported that it'd fallen to a few degrees below 0 degrees F but was now warming up to zero.
Finishing breakfast, packing the sleds, and adjusting our snowshoes took a while. It would have been longer if Mary hadn't brought a large insulated (to prevent freezing) container of drinking water that she shared with everyone. Otherwise we would have spent time melting snow into drinking water. After a couple false starts and subsequent gear adjustments, it was noon before we were firmly underway.
Acclimating to snowshoes didn't take long, as they're very stable and not much different than normal walking. Michael said the snow conditions were quite good, since a thin crust 12 inches down helped us "float" higher on the snow. We were sinking about 6 to 9 inches (without snowshoes we sank to our thighs). It took a little longer to adapt to the sled, requiring a couple roll-overs and collisions with trees to learn the knack and timing of twisting hips to steer.
Even in good conditions this mode of travel is very strenuous, due to the weight of snowshoes, high stepping through snow, and pulling heavy sleds. Lots of heat is generated by the work, so only a thin layer of clothes is recommended while moving, to prevent overheating and getting soaked with sweat. Very soon after stopping though, thick insulation must be thrown on.
We planned to break for lunch at Wolf Lake a mile and a half to the Northwest. Terrain was mostly flat through small to medium size hardwoods and poplar with an occasional lone evergreen or small cluster of them. The leafless winter woods still provided shade from sunny skies, with only a slight breeze finding it's way between trunks and branches. After an hour of weaving between trees and undergrowth we decided to turn more west (and slightly downhill) so we wouldn't miss our lunch target.
We came out of the woods to the edge of the lake, blazing white under crystal blue sky. Thick blankets of snow rested on storied conifer branches beside the half mile length of snow covered ice. Someone mused the only appropriate addition would be a wolf howling from the far side of the lake. This was definitely the place for lunch.
We ate sitting on our sleds enjoying the slight warmth of the sunshine. It was about 14 degrees F in the shade. We all had hot drink's or soup (some had both). Before leaving it was agreed the extra weight of thermos's was well worth having hot food ready to eat without cooking.
We followed the lakeshore northwest, to the far end and climbed out of the slight depression holding the lake. As afternoon moved toward evening gently rolling hills began to rise out of the flatlands. Occasionally we used old two rut roads for a short ways while they headed in our direction. We made camp half an hour before sunset, leaving a couple hours before full dark.
The site was just an area in the hardwoods with less brush. Michael talked Dave and I into building a Quinzhee, for survival training. They are Igloo like shelters made by piling snow into a mound then digging out a cavity. We had full size snow shovels (another item well worth carrying) making the work fairly quick - less than two hours. Michael was kind enough to melt snow for us on his custom built woodstove while periodically giving instruction and tips on the art of snow sheltering.
After we settled our gear into our caves, Dave and I invaded Michael's site for dinner boiling our water on his fire and sitting in his excavated dining room with seating for 3 or 4. Mary had her own environmentally friendly wood burning system that she used to prepare her usual highlight of the evening, dessert. We talked into late evening before retiring. Mary, Milton, and Michael chose to sleep under their tarps, each with a different configuration.
At 8am there was faint light coming through the chinks between the snow blocks that made up my roof. It was dead quiet, all I could hear was my own breathing, the muffling effect again. When I exited the Quinzhee, with my first breath, I could tell it was very cold. Michael was reading from Milton's thermometer and reported minus 18 degrees F, it had actually fallen a couple degrees since he got up. Milton was still under his tarp and after the weather report showed no signs of rising.
While making breakfast my homemade snowsuit kept me toasty warm. I even had to leave it partly unzipped to keep from overheating. Michael's recommendations for insulation thickness were right on target. We had another late start, only a little earlier than yesterday. I appreciated not having to rush since I was just learning how to deal with my new gear.
Mary was the first ready as usual. When she started to leave she was struggling with her sled, as if its weight had doubled or tripled overnight (I'm sure she was just demonstrating what happens when frost accumulates on a sled). The rest of us quickly scrubbed the frost off our sleds - before trying to pull them (thanks to Mary).
We pulled through much the same type terrain as yesterday, except that the rolling hills gradually increased in height. We encountered a couple periods of clouds and snow with sun between. Our goal was to reach the ridge overlooking Beaver Basin. Michael had his doubts that we would reach it today, with our late start and slow progress (due to some of us adjusting to new gear and environment).
As afternoon was ending we came to a much more substantial slope down into a large irregular shaped area completely surrounded by 30 to 50 foot hills. We decided to spend the night there, in what I unpopularly called camp depression. It was a very sheltered, quiet spot. While making camp and dinner, clouds and snow flurries became more frequent. Temperatures remained in the upper teens.
Dave set up his tent and the rest of us used tarps. The snow was quite convenient for building furniture, appliances, and other shelter improvements. I made a seat near Mary's fire, Dave made another, and Michael made a base for his wood stove that was much like a backyard barbecue. We retired after Mary's delicious dessert and more campfire conversation. Snow flurry intensity had continued to increase through the evening.
It was still dark at 7:00 am and snow was falling heavily in huge fluffy globs of flakes stuck together. There were several new inches of snow and it felt much warmer than yesterday morning, in the low teens and rising. The snow tapered off and ended (momentarily) while we ate breakfast. Breaking camp went a little smoother as we greenhorns in the group were becoming more familiar with the routine.
As we crossed the boundary into Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore the taller hills required much more effort. A couple hours from camp we arrived at the southeastern base of the ridge. It was a difficult pull up even with a couple switchbacks to ease the strain, but it wasn't prolonged since the climb was only a hundred vertical feet or so.
Wind abruptly slammed into us as we neared the crest, causing a rapid chill. There was a little blowing snow but most of the stuff on top was hard packed with lots of scrubby brush sticking out. We took an extended break just over the ridgeline, out of the worst wind. The slope on that side dropped very steeply a few hundred feet to a broad flat valley holding several white coated lakes surrounded by a vast army of winter-bare trees under an unruly gray sky dropping intermittent, random barrages of snow.
The far-reaching view over Beaver Lake Basin far below was one that helps you appreciate the immensity of this world and the tiny place each individual occupies. After break we followed the ridge northeast for another couple hours weaving between trees, brush, and other obstacles. The biting wind created an invigorating atmosphere and quickened our pace. Michael determined we had reached a point where we must turn east back off the ridge.
We were at the halfway point of our expedition and had to start working back towards the vehicles. The hilly route down from the ridge was not nearly as strenuous as the ascent but was technically more difficult. The heavy sleds tended to race downhill and some of us struggled to keep them behind us. After lunch in a protected hollow it was decided to target another depression for camp tonight. The depression we discovered, was surrounded and filled with thick brush like we had not encountered so far. After 2 hours of bushwhacking, snag dragging, and tree bumping we settled on a little clearing partway into the depression. It was surrounded by medium sized pine that provided a nice change of setting from the mostly hardwoods.
The pine trees only provided some protection from the wind. Frequent gusts found their way to us, blowing snow through camp and billowing tarps. Everyone seemed to put a little more work into their campsites this evening for weather protection, resulting in luxury accommodations. We packed the snow down for our trails between campsites, used snow to form walls under our tarp roofs.
Michael made his usual barbecue stove stand with an enlarged foot well and comfortable seating for visitors to warm themselves by the fire. Mary created another after dinner masterpiece. I was finally beginning to feel at home in this environment with it's crisp air, soft snow, and rapidly changing weather; one minute clear, open, and sweeping; the next minute obscured, close, and intimate. Evening weather was intermittent flurries and wind gusts with a temperature around 20.
The sky was slightly overcast but bright, temperature in the upper teens. I was proud of myself this morning as I had finally developed an efficient routine and was ready to go in good time. Michael had unfortunate news when I made my way over to his campsite. Mary had been sick most of the night with what seemed to be the flu. After a few inquiries it was apparent that Michael and Mary were handling the situation as well as possible under the circumstances. We were going to wait an hour or more in the hopes that Mary's condition would improve. While Mary rested we discussed concerns and options. It was decided that we would split up much of Mary's load and keep an eye on her as we hiked out.
Michael scouted ahead for a while to find an old two track trail, we had been mostly avoiding these until now. Any trails in this area would likely lead in the right direction and would join up with increasingly larger and well used trails until reaching the main county road. There were snowmobilers using some of these trails, asking for help was an option if needed. It took an hour or more of following Michael's tracks to find the first trail.
We flagged him down when we saw him from a distance. It was apparent that Mary was deteriorating as we slowly progressed, another plan was needed. As Mary rested we divided more of her gear up and Michael towed her sled behind his.
With frequent rests Mary was able to make better time without the sled and seemed to improve slightly for a short while. She was pretty well spent by the time we reached the county road after lunch. While resting she seemed to improve so we decided to try pulling her the rest of the way out rather than asking for a snowmobile ride.
We divided up the rest of her gear and wrapped her up in sleeping bags in a sled that Michael pulled behind him. The rest of us took turns towing the extra sled and gear behind ours. It was a few miles down the road to our vehicles through the windswept Kingston Plains.
Temperatures were in the low 20s with blowing snow and cloudy skies. This road is not plowed in winter which makes it very popular for snowmobilers. Large groups of them would roar by every few minutes as we made our way and some slowed down to exchange quick greetings. We probably could have easily gotten help, but Mary seemed fairly stable and we all felt this was a worthwhile learning experience in case of future incidents even deeper into the bush. We made good time on the road and reached the vehicles without further incident.
Hotels are full this time of year due to the snowmobilers, so Mary decided to stay at the parking lot overnight in Michaels van while he made a camp outside and dug her car out of the snow. The rest of us piled our gear in Dave's truck for the ride home. We said our goodbyes and Mary apologized for ruining the trip and ending it a day early. Dave replied that it was definitely not ruined and I agreed. We had accomplished our goals and although it was obviously very unpleasant for Mary we felt the evacuation had added excitement to the expedition.
Deep winter camping was a great new experience. Since few people practice unsupported, deep winter, non-base camping, it's not easy to acquire the right gear, skills, and attitude. Michael's help was key in preparing. With a unique blend of well established and newly invented techniques, he's developed a system quite suitable for expeditions in deep snow, deep cold backcountry.
There are significant additional skills and gear required beyond 3 season backpacking needs. Following are the main additions: .
--Much warmer cold weather clothing. I opted to fashion a "puffy suit" from an old cheap sleeping bag. Then I made mitts out of old fleece sweaters (4 layers thick) and mitt shells from nylon material I had on hand. For the boots I ended up buying two pairs of felt liners (one to fit inside the other) and some size 15 rubber overboots.
--Sleds are used to haul gear. Much more food and fuel are required than for 3 season backpacking. The total gear / food weight was well over 80 very bulky pounds for a 5 day trip. Making headway with this load on your back in deep snow is extremely difficult.
--Travel is very physically demanding.
--Moisture control is critical. This is accomplished through adding/removing layers according to activity level. The most important layer changing revolves around hiking. While hiking and pulling the sled wear only a thin layer of polypropylene with a wind shell over that when needed. Almost immediately after stopping for rest thick insulation must be donned to prevent chilling which can be difficult to recover from even when hiking.
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