|Winter brings many outdoor pursuits to mind: skiing, sledding, sleigh rides,
chestnuts roasting on an open fire. For most, however, camping is not one
of those activities. Steve Schwarz is not most people, and winter camping
is one of his winter activities.
Steve attended school at Northland, which offers classes in cooperation with the Northwoods Audobon Society. He studied winter survival and medicine and one of the reqirements of the Winter Interpretation class was to get to know the winter flora, fauna, and natural history of a solo camping site. Northland is located in Ashland, a small town in northernmost Wisconsin. Ashland borders the Chequamegon National Forest and that area of Lake Superior freezes over in winter, making it possible to hike to the Apostle Isles, an archipeligo that is protected as a part of the National Lakeshore. He camped extensively in the forest and also on the islands, where caves formed by the action of waves against sandstone are accessible when the water freezes. He has continued to snowshoe, backcountry ski, and winter camp in such locations as Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams in Oregon, the Huron Mountains in the Upper Peninsula, and North Manitou Island.
When I conceived a story about winter camping, Steve was the natural expert to consult. I toyed for a while with the idea of simply interviewing Steve about his experiences. While that would have been warmer, safer, and less trouble, it would also be less authentic. The night before we were to camp out I lay in my very warm and comfortable bed with Annie and our baby Kenyon as the clouds cleared and plunged temperatures below zero feeling that my resolution was foolish as well.
Earlier that day Steve and I had talked about what we would require. It turned out that he had most of the necessary gear and could borrow from his sister the one thing that I lacked--a good, cold weather sleeping bag. He instructed me to dress warmly and in multiple layers in substances such as polypropylene, capilene, and good old wool. Cotton was to be avoided at all costs, and is known by those who brave winter nights as "death cloth," since it holds perspiration and moisture in itself rather than wicking it away as the poly fibers do. He also recommended one or two camp matresses to prevent the cold of the snow underneath the tent from penetrating the sleeping bag, and a sleeping bag cover (known as a bivvy sack) to keep cold and moisture out and heat in. Warmth is of course important, but vital to warmth in wintertime is dryness if one is to avoid hypothermia, which Steve says is a gentle way of saying "freezing to death."
We went out in the afternoon, each with a pair of snowshoes, to a woods not far from home but close to the lake and fairly secluded. The snowshoes did an excellent job of making a trail to our campsite and were very handy for flattening the snow where we would set up the tent. Steve worried that die hard winter campers might notice that we had not used a tarp underneath, but he felt that the waterproofing of the tent would keep snowmelt out. While we were setting up the tent, he talked about the ease of our task as compared to that of one at 12,000 feet on a windblown glacier.
That evening, we returned with sleeping bags, the rest of our gear, and Steve's two goldens, Daisy and Clyde, thanking ourselves for having made such a nice path. It turned out that the tent was not sitting properly, so we got a taste of what it would be to have set it up in the dark with plenty of searching after the dogs found that the stakes were excellent stick substitutes. Within a short time however, we had our bags rolled out and a tiny kerosene lantern lit. It had turned out that his sister's sleeping bag was only a twenty degree bag--rated to keep you warm in temperatures of twenty degrees or above, the same as my own--so I inserted one bag inside the other, hoping that two twenties would equal a minus five. Steve already had his bag inside the bivvy sack and laughed a little as I fumbled around, realizing belatedly that a warm house was the best place for such manuevers. I was quite surprised when Steve, master of wilderness survival, removed from his pack an object that looked suspiciously like a feather pillow, learning another lesson--when you camp close to home, you can afford the comforts of home. I squinched up jackets and snow pants and tried not to think of my pillows, blissfully warm and only a short distance away.
We settled in, calmed the dogs down, and began to talk of other camping trips, how fast a single candle can warm a tent, and the people through history who lived all their lives as we did tonight (and without nylon, capilene, Thermarests, and heated homes and hot showers to return to) as we snacked on chocolate and cookies. Eating is almost as important as staying dry when outdoors in the winter because the body requires thousands of additional calories to keep temperature up. After a few sips of hot chocolate mixed with coffee, I was blissfully warm and happy to be sleeping outdoors in a season that always before been denied.
I will say a word here about dogs. If you have them and enjoy their company, then by all means take them along should you decide to camp when bears and other sensible creatures are safe in their dens. Daisy and Clyde at least fit the description of "Man's best friend," as the temperature dropped. To Clyde I am especially grateful for his service as footwarmer extrordinaire. Indeed, through the night I found that contrary to expectations, being too hot was the major problem. Somewhere around one in the morning, the wind shifted from a gentle southeastern breeze to more forceful gusts from the north that whistled through the pines above our heads, several time jolting me from half-sleep as clumps of powdery snow were dislodged to hit the tent near my head. I lay awake for many hours listening to the wind in the trees and thinking about nothing at all.
I awoke considerably colder than when I had fallen asleep, apparently having wriggled loose the layers about me somewhere in the night. Though it was still dark and I was still tired, I soon abandoned further sleep, hoping instead that it was close to the time when I should be making my way home to get ready for work. Steve awoke and soon heard his father's dog barking as he was dropped at his grandmother's, a sure sign that it was seven A.M.. Making my way home into the cold morning wind, it came into my head that this is the reason that I write--talking with interesting people and doing things that I might not otherwise find reasons for. And in the shower a little later, I found one development of modern society which I could not criticize--hot water and lots of it!