Thursday, December 27, 2012

Dan Crane: Missing Winter Camping

The end of the year brings thoughts of turkey dinners, confectionary favorites, over-crowded malls, excessively decorated plastic trees, mind-piercing hangovers following nights of revelry and portly, old, child-obsessed elves dressed in red and white. The recent early winter snows, also commonly found at this time of the year, not only put me in the holiday spirit, it also has me pondering my past winter camping experiences.

Winter camping conjures up thoughts of crisp cool air slightly stinging the lungs, sunshine glistening off newly fallen snow and the crunch of compressed snow under the weight of snowshoe-covered feet. Unfortunately, winter camping, much like holiday celebrations, is not merely all fun and games, but also a physically and mentally challenging activity, requiring more than a little persistence and perseverance.

Every year about this time, many people reminisce about the year ending, as well as many joyful holiday experiences long past. Along with these same thoughts, I recall memories about the many cold and snowy backpacking trips taken in the Adirondacks during the wintery months, typically in the High Peaks Region. There were so many icy summits conquered, unusual animal encountered and adventures experienced that it is difficult to remember them all.

Although the whiteout of my aging memory obscures many of my wintery experiences, some remain deeply etched within my mind.

Viewing Mt. Colden from Algonquin Peak under crystal-clear blue skies on one of the coldest days ever experienced. Bone-chilling winds reducing visibility to nearly zero while summiting Mt. Skylight. Watching a brilliant sunrise near the summit of Cascade Mountain, after camping nearby the night before. Turning back as the sun quickly sank in the afternoon sky while bushwhacking to Mt. Redfield. A midnight snowshoe into Marcy Dam under clear skies, the bright moonlight illuminating the way.

Some of my fond memories feature wildlife rather than snowy weather or windswept landscapes. With much of the natural Adirondack residents dormant or wintering far to the south, wildlife encounters were always few and far between during the winter months, though somewhat more fulfilling due to their rareness.

The flying squirrel nearly clinging to my leg in an attempt to flee after snagging some discarded trail mix in the snow. The pine marten bounding through the snow, disappearing under the lean-to occupied by my two companions. Holding sunflower seeds between my lips while feeding hungry black-capped chickadees to an appreciative lean-to audience.

Saying I am romanticizing about my winter camping experiences, would be a wild understatement. Along with the many preciously memorable moments, there are a plethora of others were shear misery reigned supreme.

Many hours spent in darkness, sequestered within an inadequately warm sleeping bag, while waiting for the first light of dawn to appear, hugging a slowly cooling hot water bottle and either listening to the inane chatter of my companions or some silly radio show that I would rather scrub the toilet bowl than deign to listen to at home. The frozen early morning starts, the frost nip fingertips, the numb hands and feet nearly bringing grown men to tears. The many hours and gallons of fuel spent melting snow, realizing how cruel the universe is that it is impossible to reverse the process in six months’ time.

It has been years since the last time I was out backpacking during the wintertime in the Adirondacks. In fact, the only time my winter camping gear sees the light of day now is during my annual early spring trips to the Adirondacks’ little sister, the Catskills. The reasons for avoiding the winter camping experience are many, although mostly due to my few backpacking companions seemingly losing interest as they aged.

Unfortunately, I never felt comfortable backpacking solo during winter conditions. The reasons for this are many. The threat of frostbite and hypothermia creates a slimmer margin of error during the colder months, much unlike their warmer counterpart. The silence brought on by the lack of wildlife activity provides not only solitude, but also the chill of loneliness. The short days accompanied by long hours of darkness, while every hour of cold suffered alone without another soul to provide the comfort of companionship.

Despite all these negative aspects of winter camping, I continue to miss it. Although, day trips of snowshoeing and cross-country skiing help staunch the sense of loss, they fail to quench the yearning for those clear, cold, star-filled skies, or the sheer joy of a hot beverage at a lean-to at the end of a long, hard day of climbing a windswept peak covered in ice and snow.

Perhaps the experiences of others shall satisfy my thirst for winter camping. Has anyone had any interesting winter camping experiences in the Adirondacks? How about any memorable wildlife experiences during the wintertime? Maybe we can commiserate with a few miserable moments worth sharing. Feel free to add any interesting experiences in the comments below.

Photo: Queen Lake in winter conditions in 2004 by Dan Crane.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

One Response

  1. Brad says:

    Spot on! Though from your comments I was expecting a truly grizzled veteran, not some guy in his mid-40’s. Way too young to give up on this activity.
    What I found, after my buddies always always seemed to have something to do and my kids found homework more enjoyable than hiking in and ‘suffering’ (how they described it once to their mother)… was that I was almost as happy when I dialed back my expectations and contented myself with a near trailhead campsite, sometimes would pull in a loaded to the gills sled on a lake or burn road…took as much of the grunt out of the process and replaced the pain with some pleasure – enjoyed a bigger fire, better food, the wonderful night sky and warmer clothes, etc. Much harder as you noted to replace the camraderie.

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