I really like multiple day back-country trips. I like that feeling you
get when you walk away from the car, knowing that it won't be
available for a missed item, or as a great gear/garbage dump. I also
like packing for these trips, as they force you to review just how
useful each piece of gear in relation to its size and weight. This is
actually a hobby in itself. It gives you a reason to browse gear
magazines, stores and web sites, searching for that magical piece of
techie gear that will make everything all right.
The more you do this stuff, the simpler it gets. I don't just mean the
process, I mean the results. There are a million ways to put 30- 40
lbs on your back, but even a light reading of the hiker diaries from
the AT, shows how people pare down their essential lists until they
have what works, works well, lasts, and does what's required, no more.
Every trip is an excuse to talk and buy gear, and for this one I
bought a pair of leather mitts, a water bottle holder and a wool
shirt. I also picked up a clothes dry-bag for Christmas. Between
having Sean and Glenn at work, Gordon during runs, Duffy emails, and
the 1st Annual Gear Bare, I think I should try and write "Zen and the
Art of Backpack Maintenance"
The early morning wakeup, the collective meeting at Timmies, the drive
to the location, the start-out picture (did we get one this trip??)
and finally we're off. I'm watching the sleds and snowshoes. I'd like
to try them, but not this trip. I like the simplicity of my back and
my feet. I know what they can do and in what conditions. I like that
slow burn you get going on a backpack trip. Not too fast, not too
slow, just steady and comfy.
I like walking in the woods, any woods. I really like walking in snow.
I want to go and live in Alaska. I really like having my world on my
back. Winter camping adds that extra spice. The environment around you
is beautiful yet potentially deadly. It teases you with its
loveliness, but it doesn't care if you come or go. It has a life of
its own. If anything, you are an intruder.
We get to camp with a minor detour over the lake. Yikes! Amazing what
you will do in a group. Feeling that slush come up over my boot
probably cost me a year of my life, not to mention that soaking the
only footwear you have presents interesting challenges later on. You
carry backups of just about everything, but usually just the one pair
Camp was a big snowfield. Now I know why people bring snow shovels.
Winter camping takes a lot of maintenance, so the rest of the day is
spent making food, fire and drinkable water, interspersed with lots of
frivolity and potty humour to match anyone.
Chilcoot Dave had some neat gear (the alcove tent, zoomin' snowshoes)
and sense of humour easily equal to the abuse being handed out. Sean
(SPiG) had the simplest food setup I'd ever seen. Basically hot water,
a big mug and stuff that cooked in it or in a bag on the stove. Gonna
steal some ideas from that. Personally, I just started wearing poly
liners under my gloves, and almost never take them off. They are good
in the snow and for unlacing boots, setting up tent poles, zipping up
clothes and dozens of small tasks too hard for bulky gloves. I liked
the sleds, but only for open, cleared trail. A real pain in anything
else. I really liked the snowshoes and hope to get started on a pair
(Oh Boy! Another excuse to research and buy gear!) I wore regular
hiking boots instead of mukluks and cheated with some chemical heat
pads. Still debating as to which I like better. Sean has a pair with
reversible sock liners which are worth checking out
The overnight was fine. You sleep in fits and starts, adjusting
positions, access to air and identifying body parts not as warm as
they should be. My gear had been in in a few of these, and this was
the coldest. Things went well except for a small period around 4:00
AM, something I fixed for the next evening, which was even colder.
Man, those boots are cold in the morning. Taking another idea from
Sean, I had a minimal breakfast of porridge and tea before leaving the
sleeping bag, using the overnite Thermos of hot water. Very cool.
The weather wasn't clear, but it was gorgeous. It was like a snow
crystal fog over the lake. I was a little disconcerted to hear the
open discussion about going home. It was like watching a mating dance.
A little hint here, some mild agreement there and soon you have
the unmistakable, uncontrollable herd response, with everyone nodding
in agreement. Sean was still up for another evening, but everyone else
was going home. Some had only booked in for one evening, but others
had taken a day off to stay the 2 nights. I liked the idea of going
to bed cold, waking up cold, knowing you have to go to bed cold again,
and see how your planning and preparation work out.
Back-country camping leaves you a few standard options. Hike all day,
setup camp, eat, enjoy the fire, repeat until done. Another choice is
to hike in, setup a base camp and do day hikes. Some hikers are really
naturalists who like to spend a lot of time in one place. We don't
really do that. We tend to move and quickly at that. We talk about
spending more time at camp, learning things like shelter options and
cooking options, but really, we like to move.
One of the reasons I like Katahdin so much is that we get to work from
a base camp and usually in various groups, allowing you to hook in
where it makes the most sense that day. You get to come home at the
end of the day, but you slogged that portable home on your back for 3
hours from the car. I just love that.
The hike back to the cars meant to get us back on the trail, but with
so much snow, our only real option was Gordon's decision to re-cross
the lake and get back on the 401 the sleds carved the prior day. When
it comes to directional problems, I have a very hard time with the
clues obvious in the environment. Hiking in, Chilcoot Dave led us on
the trail through some very deep snow and only mis-stepped within
hailing distance of the site. I can't pick out the trail easily in the
summer. I can read and set a bearing, but I can't step outside the
basic rules and come up with the common sense answer to the many
directional problems that pop up in backcountry, especially in winter.
Our break at the Big Dam parking lot brought us into contact with 6
guys (some with external packs, yeah!) who had camped at Site D.
Counting the group of young guys at A, us at C and Site #3 and it was
a busy night. Add the 2 groups of xskiers on the way out it's like a
winter playground in there.
Back at the cars, Sean was pretty wet and not comfortable with the
idea of staying over in a storm with no real chance of an open fire to
dry out some clothes and gear. That left me, and I was going to camp
if it meant setting up by the car. I decided to hike to Jeremy's
(about 4 km) and setup, then think about walking back for the car, so
as to not put myself in any needless danger. The cars take off as I
turn my back and head down the road, into what was becoming a big
"Well, I'm walking down the road, with my hat on my head
Had to leave my buddies who went home instead
Well, the snow is falling on me and you know, I sure feel fine
The sun is shinin' on me and you know...I sure feel fine"
Ozark Mountain Daredevils, 1970's
The decision to stay and camp another night was easy. The desire to go to Jeremy's and camp near the beach in the Meadows was really strong. My confidence in the ability to stay hydrated, fueled up and warm was also strong. The desire to do this all by myself was more than compelling. The realization that even a small accident with a fall or a knife could put me in some serious danger was never far from my mind for the next 20 hours.
I convinced myself in small steps.. at least hike to Jeremy's and decide there, an old Gonzo trick of not making decisions too early.
Then it was at least setup camp, then go back for the car. A car can be used to get over sloppiness, which is why I don't like car camping. All I wanted it for was emergency.
There is something very liberating about being by yourself. Tunes play in your head. Birds sing and you stop hiking to look (in vain). When you stop, there is no other sound other than nature, and it can be pretty quiet at times. There was a lot of snow coming down, which just enhanced the feeling of isolation. I made it to the beach and took a quick break reviewing some older memories from there (camping with the family in the 80's, when a big tree branch fell on the tent during a stormy night, hiking/biking with Sophie a few years back, kayaking the Channel loop with Grodon and Bruce in the fall and landing at the beach)
I dug my way into site #31 and setup the tent while an amazing amount of snow continued to fall. Went inside for some tea and crumpets and took stock of my situation. Lots of food, to be eaten hot or cold, decent amount of water, stove and fuel, enough fire-starter kit for a few fires, no access to dry lumber unless I took the car back to the Admin building, basically dry clothes and enough gear to stay warm all night.
Loaded up enough clothes/food to hike back to the car, stepped outside, slogged out to the Meadows loop road and was confronted with an astounding sight. The road was flat, no sihn of the plow ever having been there, no sign of tires tracks, no sign of my passing just an hour ago. Just flat, white snow. There was no thought of even trying to bring the car down here. Easy enough, my last decision was made for me. I was here for the night.
If you ever read my kayak story from Kenduskeag, I mentioned soemthing about the noise that goes on in your head when you're trying to make a hard decision and the silence that accompanies finally making that decision. Once I knew I was staying, my whole focus changed from mulling options and possibilities to one one concentrating on heat and hydration management.
Accidents are usually accompanied by sloppiness, so I spent a fair bit of time ensuring that what I was doing made sense and that I could do it safely. This included searching out a couple of close sites for firewood, poking through almost 2 ft of snow with Sean's snowshovel, and then dragging a bit of leaning deadwood back for fire makings. I put up my space blanket as a vestibule, turning the red side out towards the road for visibility. I cut ropes for the tarp, checking my feet, balance and the knife blade before every cut. It may seem silly reading this, but it sure didn't feel silly at that place and time.
I shovelled out my tent site at least 3 times, as the snow just kept a'comin', then dug out the firepit and a path to the road. This done, I boiled up some tea and a snack and headed back to the beach for some reflection. I had everything done that I wanted during daylight and just had supper and hopefully a little comfort fire left on my list.
I spent a lot of time thinking about heat management. I never took of the poly liners unless absolutely necessary. When I sat still, I had everything covered up and all my non-emergency layers on. I drank warm tea or hot chocolate at every opportunity.
While supper was cooking, I started a fire and fought the little s.o.b. for more than it was worth. I kept it going for a few hours, but only with constant vivgilance. The wood was just too wet to get a good ember bed going. I cracked out the cheese and salami for fat and flavor and watched the fire and lake from my little vestibule. All in all, an extremely satisfying meal. As the stories have come in, it looks like the homeward bound crew were shovelling themselves and others out of ditches while I enjoyed my gourment meal. Even fellow runner Rosco spent this same time fighting the road elements, while I enjoyed the comfort of the homefires.
After boiling up the nightly termos water and another round of tea, it was time to turn in. I only made it to 7:00 thanks to the lack of fire, but it had been a long day and the time was good. I placed the red, reflecto shovel out at the end of my site and retired. I slept quite well, listening to wind blow those big pines over my head. I had to move the down vest from feet to back around 3:00 and noticed that it was even colder than the night before (probably -12 to -15), but it was a nice evening all around.
I wanted to head out by sunrise, so got up at 6:00, had some tea and brekkie and packed in the dark. Man, everything was really frozen. My mitts/scarf were like wood and I had to break out the backups. I couldn't get my boots on, they were so stiff, even after 20 minutes in my sleeping bag liner. I contemplated cutting the tongue to get my feet in. You can't walk out without boots and I couldn't get mine on.
Realistically, there always multiple options when something doesn't work. I could have used the stove to thaw them a little, or climbed back into the sleeping bag with them for awhile, switched to 2 light socks...lots of options yet to be considered. The trick is to keep your mind open to the options available.
One mistake that I made was to only melt out the one Thermos for the morning. I made breakfast with it and drank the rest after 1/2 hour of hiking, but that left me another hour without anymore liquid. Of course, I could just stop and get the stove going, but really should have made another bottle and thawed it out a bit in the morning with my Thermos water (which was actually tea, another little mistake)
I was taking the tent down as the sun came up and by the time I hit the trail, it was a glorious, sunny morning, sort of like a reward for staying over. The feeling can't be described although I know some reading this know what it is. Duddy and I stayed over after a very rainy Liberty run a few years back and the following day was just stunning. I'm slogging through snow up to my knees, but I'm surrounded by this pristine whiteness, with sun shining off of everything. When I stop to rest, the tracks behind me are the only change in the environment. The view, and the feeling was worth every penny.
In past Gonzo conversations, we talk about the buzz you get from the contrasts. A nice hot Timmies coffee after a hard, wet, cold run, a nap after a tough day of hiking, a shower after 2-3 days without one.
We don't just chase fitness and adventure and comradeship, we chase that contrast of highs and lows, hard and soft, cold and warm.
Hiking my winter gear down that sunny road will be a memory to keep me warm when the knees, eyes and back give out. I guarantee you I won't be revelling in office memories in my eighties
The hike back to the car is tough enough that I rest every 50 left steps and set a time limit to stop and make more water. As it turns out, the car comes into sight (at least it's' outline) at my 9:00 cutoff. Back to civilization. I can't drive anywhere, have to wait for the plow, but i"m back. I call Rnager jackie and let her know where I am, then call Duffy to say that I'm out. The rest of the day is just a warm, fuzzy memory. Lots of sun, big body and brain buzz and nice, slow drive home.
- Sleds need to be compact and tight
- Poly liners are the best thing
- Food freezes in the winter
- Keep hot water with you at all times
- Simpler is better
- Snowshovels are essential
- Mukluks get wet too
- Internal frames packs soak your back
- Where were my sunglasses
- Don't make tea, make water, add tea later
- Keep a general bearing going all the time
- Use your watch for a sense of distance
- You only have 1 pair of boots
- Winter camping is high maintenance
- Wool is great