Saturday, January 5, 2013

Lost Brook Dispatches: The Pleasures of Winter Camping

The family and I are just back from our annual winter trek to Lost Brook Tract and I have a joyful urge to write about how terrific winter camping is.  My timing is not intended to offer any sort of counterpoint to Dan Crane’s recent post; the last time I checked he and I don’t  coordinate our contributions.  But counterpoint it will be.

In fact, let me begin with Dan: Dan!  Dude!  Get back out there and pitch your tent, buddy.  There’s plenty of winter to go and I can vouch for the fact that there are perfect conditions in the back country right now – no doubt there will be for quite some time.

Why do we go backpacking in the Adirondacks?  I submit that if you were to make a list of the reasons you go into the wilderness for an extended period, you would find that almost all of them are more valid and better fulfilled in the winter (I know, I know… yeah, sure, but it’s cold Pete). 

Here are some of my reasons for backpacking: the feel of being in wilderness, solitude, beauty, dramatic vistas especially mountain vistas, the experience of being renewed by an environment that is pristine and last but not least a feeling of self-reliance – or better put, a feeling of coming to terms with my natural self and natural ability, my capacity to be primitive and live fully the pleasure of essential survival and function.

There is little question the Adirondacks feel more wild in the winter.  We summited Burton’s Peak the morning of the first real cold drop a few days back.  We came up the sheltered eastern side with the sound of the wind in our ears and met it squarely as we went across the summit to stand atop the rocky cliff we call Adam’s Ledge which is exposed to northwest winds funneling through the basin defined by our peak and the next one over.  It was howling, buffeting our backs and causing that feel of rapid drying on the face that almost registers as warm for a moment.  Though the day was clear our neighboring mountain, a High Peak, was almost completely obscured in the distinctive haze that fine crystals of snow, whipped by strong winds and backlit by the sun, create only when temperatures are bitter.  Frost rime coated the western side of every tree and rock.  We might as well have been approaching the Arctic Circle.  It doesn’t get more wilderness feeling than that (damn, sounds cold, Pete).

In the winter, given enough cover, you can bushwhack anywhere more easily than in summer and with less chance of getting lost since you are making your own trail – and, let it be said, without damaging the ground or leaving a herd path.  Between that and the natural sound-insulating effect of snow cover (snow is cold, Pete) and the fact that there are fewer and generally quieter people back in the woods, the feeling of solitude in the winter much stronger than in summer.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but winter offers at least as many beauties as summer, they’re just different.   I love all the seasons here.  As to dramatic mountain vistas, the Adirondacks in winter look much more impressive.  Many parts of the Rockies have no more vertical than the Great Range but it is obvious to me that they look taller because they are craggier and snowier.  The comparison equalizes a lot after the Dacks have been socked with a winter blast like the one last week.  Take the Ridge Trail up Giant in the summer, then do it again in winter … that’ll be that, trust me. (But Pete it’s COLD!).  And what could be more pristine than perfectly white snow, perfectly blue ice and perfectly green conifers?  Nothing.

Finally, the feeling of self-reliance (what about the lack of feeling in your fingers, Pete) one gets from making a place for one’s self in the winter wilderness far exceeds the same experience in summer.  This is for obvious reasons, right?  (Right, you have to avoid freezing to death Pete, so stop ignoring me.  Dummy).

And there are no bugs.

I call all that a slam dunk for winter.

But it is cold.  That’s the issue, the only reason winter backpacking is not more popular. Dan Crane does make a good point about the shorter days and the darkness that must be endured, yet that is true everywhere, in or out of the woods.  My advice with respect to that is a good book, a deck of cards , a headlamp with extra batteries and a well-pitched tent of good quality.  That leaves cold as the sole objection.

Here’s my problem with cold as the sole objection: it is more perception than reality.  The psychology of cold plays upon otherwise reasonable people, erasing the distinction between “It is cold” and “I am cold,” which is kind of an important difference.  Here’s an example: we just spent three nights at Lost Brook Tract, sandwiching a good, solid Adirondack subzero snap between a couple of typical January nights. Yet I got colder for a more extended period of time and with more frozen fingers when I stood for ten minutes in a sweater and shell in the parking lot of our motel tying all our snowshoes and poles to the roof rack.  People who would never go winter camping will get good and cold waiting at a bus stop or scraping ice off a car.  In northern climates you get cold some times.

In the back country you need to be prepared, summer or winter.  If you are well prepared for the winter you will get cold here and there… but you won’t stay that way, just like in the “civilized” world.  If you have decent clothes (and much modern outdoor winter clothing is quite good) and you strive to stay dry it is not that difficult to stay warm.  If you have a good bag, a decent tent that you know how to pitch in winter (for God’s sake don’t pitch on snow) and a comfortable hat to wear at night, then you have a cozy retreat to be as warm as you need any time you like.

Seriously, the problem of being cold in the winter is over-hyped.  There is nothing I have experienced that is colder than rain and lower forties during a supposed Adirondack summer morning.  In fact it is a statistical truth that more people die of hypothermia in the summer than in the winter.  The dangers of being wet have a lot to do with that. Nice dry snow is insulating, easy to brush off and pretty to boot.  Plus people prepare themselves better in the winter.

I don’t know, maybe I have a thing for cold.  I’d rather have cold than 95 degrees and humid any day of the week.   The bottom line is that winter camping doesn’t have to be any more unpleasant than other seasonal camping.  It is easy to stay nice and warm and enjoy the snowy, pure, lovely woods around you.

Of course there is that getting up-in-the-morning-and-changing-clothes-with-boots-that-need-thawing thing…

(I knew you were holding out on me, Pete.  Blah blah blah, like it isn’t awful.  Whatever.)

A quick end note – I would like to dedicate the voice in my ear to Shay Husslein.  Smooch.

Photo: Windy storm of frost crystals in subzero conditions envelopes ridges across from Burton’s Peak

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Pete Nelson is a teacher, writer, essayist and activist whose work has appeared in a variety of Adirondack publications, and regularly in the Adirondack Almanack since 2005. Pete is also a founder and current Coordinator of the Adirondack Diversity Advisory Council, which is working to make the Park more welcoming and inclusive.When not writing or teaching mathematics at North Country Community College, Pete can be found in the back country, making music or even walking on stilts, which he and his wife Amy have done professionally throughout the United States for nearly two decades.Pete is a proud resident of Keene, and along with Amy and his dog Henderson owns Lost Brook Tract, a forty-acre inholding deep in the High Peaks Wilderness.

4 Responses

  1. Ken Tucker, G2G, BeerHere2010 says:

    “And there are no bugs.”

    Thanks for sharing, Pete. I’ve already re-shared via my twitter account to the #craftbeer community that I am constantly ‘pitching’ on brewing in the ADKs. Na zdravi!
    Ken / Go-2-Guy > ADKBREWCO /Adirondack Brewers Coaltion

  2. John Jongen says:

    The pleasure of a bracing winter hike is like a splash of witch-hazel aftershave. After having braved a lifetime on speedskates an cx skis I am preparing to learn the pleasures of snowshoeing and camping the Dacks High Peaks in winter. Thank you for your inspiration Pete.

  3. Tom says:

    I try to go winter camping every year in the Adirondacks. It is not much harder to stay warm than spending a day skiing; all the same principles apply.
    I have never slept in a tent while winter camping. I have always stayed in a leanto. I find it more enjoyable. The best trip is two nights, which gives you a day to ski, snowshoe and explore. St. Regis Pond, Stephens Pond, Cascade Pond, Tirrell Pond, John Pond and Indian Pass all have leantos and are good destinations.

  4. Brad says:

    Nice Read.
    You missed out on noting some of the ‘satisfactions’ of winter camping. To wit: Oneness with your gear. A good fire is soul warming. Food tastes better. Night skies are tremendous when clear. The sound of snow falling. Animal tracks and sightings, coyotes howling, just wonderful. Y0u mostly leave the idiots behind. Time to think, talk, appreciate… and so on.

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