Wilderness Tripping: Winter
Winter Camping in
A Cross-country Sledge Trip
By Milton French
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I signed up for this trip about January 5 and started preparations. It seems like there is always a lot to do before every trip. This trip was no exception. I took advantage of post-season sales whenever possible.
Someone at the church I attend--Northville Christian Assembly--told me about Dick's Sporting Goods. This place turned out to be a good source of outdoor equipment. I bought two pair of ski bibs for $15 each, 2 5/8 inch closed celled pads. Wal*Mart was another good source. I bought the thermos for $8 and a down vest for $16.
I also stopped at Gander Mountain and saw they had some pack boots rated at -100 C on sale and some overboots. I asked the trip leader whether these were good buys. He said that brand of boot was not well made and to pass on the overboots.
It was also a challenge to get the time off work. I work at a sleep lab which has contracted the sleep studies to another company. I work for the contract company. They are not too flexible when it comes to time off. Fortunately the doctor in charge of the sleep clinic is flexible. I printed out the trip announcement from the Internet, showed it to the doctor and there was no problem getting the time off.
The sleep clinic is open at night since this is when most people sleep. I was scheduled to work from 8pm Tuesday until 4pm Wednesday. Since I had agreed to meet a carpool in Flint at 3pm on Wednesday, this would have meant I would have been late plus very tired from working 20 hours straight at the sleep lab. Fortunately, I was able to get a substitute for the day portion of the shift. The sub arrived just before 8:30am and I headed home to get a few hours of sleep before leaving.
I was only able to get about 2 hours of sleep but it was better than none.
The long drive north
I had planned to start packing at 12:45pm, leave at 1:45pm and arrive in Flint at 3pm. But I did not finish packing and leave until 2:20pm. That day a significant snow storm was in the Detroit area. I took I96 west to US 23 which goes north to Flint. I progressed as far as exit 155, which is the Milford exit, when the traffic came to a complete halt. I took the Milford exit and drove on back roads until I finally reached exit 69 on US 23 which is M59.
The detour took a lot time on snowy back roads. But I was still not out of the traffic woes. For the next 10 miles it was stop and go. I finally arrived in Flint at 5:35pm. The trip took 3 hours 15 minutes when it normally takes 1 hour and 15 minutes. The contact there said they were going to leave at 6pm without me. Another 25 minutes and I would have missed the trip since I was not willing to drive up there myself.
The first couple of hours were slow going due to the storm but around West Branch the worst was over and we made better time. We crossed Mackinac Bridge about 11pm and continued onward to Newberry. There we called Michael and made arrangements to meet at the Bear Trap Inn. We arrived at the inn just after 1am and waited until 1:40 am when Michael arrived. Then we followed Michael to the trailhead on H58.
We arrived to a parking lot that had not been cleared. After a lot of shoveling we were able to park the cars and have a place to sleep for the night. When we arrived it was 8 F.
Thursday--day no. 1
When morning arrived the temperature had dropped to -3 F. We took care of the usual preliminaries of signing the Sierra club waiver, paying the trip fee of $15 plus a $5 sled rental fee. Then we loaded the sleds. Mary was the first to be ready to go but soon after leaving, she had trouble with her snowshoes. Michael used some 1/8 inch cord to secure the bindings.
I also had a similar problem. The Snowdonia boots were too big in width to fit the snowshoe bindings. So Michael used some more 1/8 inch cord to lengthen the binding. Finally around noon we departed. After 1-2 hours of travel through hardwood forest we arrived at Wolf Lake where we stopped for lunch. This lake while small has no development on it and it was beautiful. By then it was 6 F.
After lunch we headed along the lake shore to the east and then headed back into the bush. After some time we came to a trail which we took for awhile. Although it was cold, the sunshine made it fell warmer. There was no shortage of snow making the snowshoes indispensable. Once again we headed back into the bush and after some time stopped for camp. It was about 4pm. By then the temperature was 0F.
We setup up camp and Mary started a wood fire. The temperature was dropping rapidly and by 5:30pm it had plummeted to -9F. We had supper around the campfire. Later in the evening some clouds came in and the temperature rose to -3F. We then went to bed. Since the temperature had risen, I was expecting a relatively warm night.
Friday--day no. 2
But it was not to be. Shortly before sunrise, I heard Michael get up and announce a temperature of -14. I listened while he continued to monitor the temperature. I heard -18 and then -19. I wanted to stay in the sleeping bag as long as possible in the hope it would warm up. But a little while later, Michael came over to where I was sleeping and told me it was probably time to get up.
By the time I got up and read the thermometer it was -15F. When I was in high school I had slept outside on a night when the low was -10. This time I beat that by 9 degrees. We did not hurry to get ready to leave and by the time we left it was after 11:45am. The temperature was up to +1F. We continued on through the bush until coming to a trail heading north which we took. We stayed on this for quite awhile before once again heading into the bush. After a pleasant hike in the bush we stopped for lunch. This time the temperature was +9. I was somewhat careless with staying warm and by the time we left I had cold hands. It took several minutes to warm them up.
After continuing onward in the bush we came to a depression where we decided to camp. The temperature was +7F. It was a pretty area. There was plenty of firewood and we soon had a fire going. The temperature dropped to -1F about 7pm and stayed there for some time before rising again. It had been clear earlier with the stars shining brilliantly but now there was a haze. Around 9pm we decided to go to bed and it was up to +1.
Saturday--day no. 3
About 3pm I awoke to the sound of snow falling. By the time morning came there was 2-3 inches of new snow. The temperature was up to +11F. We headed out of the depression uphill continuing through a relatively open area of hardwoods until we reached the side of Beaver Basin. The view was awesome. We traveled along the ridge in an area of high winds and deep drifts. I was late leaving camp due to having to adjust the snowshoes twice and the sled contents once to keep them from snagging on vegetation.
After 20 minutes or so I caught up to the rest of the group huddled together for warmth. I was still having trouble with my snowshoe bindings rubbing against the decking. Dave came to my aid and fixed one shoe. I saw what to do and was able to fix the other shoe in camp. From the start of the trip I had been having trouble with the modified bindings rubbing against the decking.
After some time we left the side of the basin and continued through hardwood forest until stopping for lunch in a small depression. By then it had warmed up to 24F. From there we continued through woods until reaching a trail. We followed this trail until it led to an open area with scattered pine trees. From there we went into a dense area of growth which was difficult going. After an hour of travel in this terrain we reached an open area with some pine trees where we stopped for camp. It was about 5pm.
During the evening there were high winds which made using a wood fire challenging. Nevertheless we succeeded. The temperature was about 17F during the evening. About 9pm we went to bed.
Sunday--day no. 4
In the morning we discovered more snow had fallen during the night but temperatures remained around 17F. We were sad to hear than Mary had vomited twice during the night and apparently had the flu.
Just before we left Michael asked me if I wanted to give the Sunday sermon. I said I would wait for a better opportunity. It was a fateful decision because that opportunity never came since Mary's condition worsened during the day. This is the text of the message that I planned to deliver but never got another chance. This is the text of the Sunday message, which was never given.
Mary was able to pull the sled for about an hour but her condition was growing worse. We stopped and removed most of the weight from her sled and put it on other people's sleds. Soon after that we attached her sled to Michael's sled and he towed both sleds while Mary walked. We found a trail toward the east that led to H58 and took it. Both Mary and I were having trouble with snow sticking to the snowshoe crampons.
We stopped for lunch on the trail and continued east until we reached H58 about 3pm. The temperatures remained at 16 F during the day with high winds. By then Mary was chilled so we put her in her sleeping bag to warm her up. Michael then decided to tow Mary in her sled while another member towed his sled. It took about 1.5 hours traveling south on H58 to reach the parking lot. We saw many snowmobiles traveling on this road. There were high winds and much blowing snow.
The long drive home
We reached the parking lot about 5:15pm. Michael put Mary in his van and turned on the heat to warm her up. Chris and Dave decided to head back that evening but Mary was not in a condition to drive so she decided to spend the night. Chris and Dave offered to give me a ride back which I accepted. We were able to load our three people's equipment in the 4 wheel drive pickup but it was a tight fit. We left about 6pm after saying goodbye to Michael and thanking him for a great trip.
We were thankful for Dave and Chris's 4 wheel drive to get us out of the parking lot. After 45 minutes we got to M28 and headed east. Soon thereafter we lost control due to the rear swerving right and we went about 15m off the road into snow at least 1m deep. The 4 wheel drive didn't help. Soon a couple of passing vehicles stopped to help. We got out our snow shovels and tow strap and after an hour of digging, tugging, digging some more and more pulling we were out. We are deeply indebted to one man in particular dressed in a brown coat. He knew just what to do to get us out. We can't thank him enough.
But our troubles were still not over. Within 15 minutes the hot engine light came on. We pulled to the side of the road and after 15 minutes of digging managed to get the snow out of the engine compartment. We still drove slowly until we could get to a gas station to get more coolant as most of it had boiled out while we were trying to get out of the snow bank earlier. After we added the coolant, the engine overheating was over.
In St. Ignace we stopped at a 24 truck diner and had dinner. We crossed the Mackinac bridge at 11pm and arrived back in Flint about 2:30am. I unloaded all my stuff and drove home in 1 hour and 12 minutes arriving at 3:50am. The trip back from Flint was a huge contrast from the trip up in the snow storm. It was a fun trip even with the severe cold and Mary contracting the flu.
Post-trip thoughts on
I was never cold on the trip except for lunch on Friday where I was careless and got cold hands. Most of the time I was too warm hiking since I wore a w/b parka with 200 weight fleece underneath. In fact, there were many times when I got too warm to continue and had to stop to cool off before continuing. To solve this problem, I need a breathable parka, a lighter w/b parka and a lighter weight fleece layer.
The second problem was with the boots and snowshoes. I had an older model of Tubbs with webbing and a single crampon underneath the ball of the boot. The crampon would collect snow causing me to put all my weight on the ball of the boot to walk. This was causing strain on the arches since the Snowdonia boot is not rigid. Also the boots were size 9 which is too big for me. After they were broke in my foot inside the vbl would move around inside the boot. By Sunday it was a big problem causing blisters by the end of the trip.
Even though the LaCrosse Snowdonia pac boot is recommended by Michael in his equipment list, I cannot recommend this boot. First is the weight of the boots which is 2.51 kg. The warmest rated model plastic boot at -65 F made by Koflach is the Arctis Expe weighing 2.42 kg. This boot has been used successfully on Denali. Michael said the plastic boot was much too heavy so how much more so is the Snowdonia. Second is the width of the boot. I know of no snowshoe binding big enough to accommodate it. Third is the fact that LaCrosse does not sell replacement liners for the boot. It is necessary to buy another boot to get the liner. Still the boot was warm enough for this trip. I have since learned that I may have to modify the bindings on a showshoe to get them to work with boots designed for expeditioning.
There are five options for winter boots: the mukluk, pac boot, plastic boot, insulated leather boot and the military vapor barrier boot. Of these, the mukluk is the only acceptable option. The pac, plastic and military boots are too heavy and the insulated leather boot is not warm enough for severe cold. The mukluk is a cloth boot with added liners and insoles. There may or may not be a rubber outsole. It is lightweight, small and very warm with sufficient liners and insoles.
Since I was slower progressing through the bush than some of the others on the trip, I spent much of the trip in the sweep position. But, once I got used to it, I preferred the solitude of being last. I think with some minor equipment modifications, I will be able to move to the point position in the future if I want to.
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