This was the weekend we had scheduled our long-planned girl scout version of the BSA Camp Alaska weekend. The rules were: no tents, just tarps… 24 hours outdoors… pack in your gear to the site. After a couple of planning meetings and some packing and grocery lists, we headed out Saturday with 2 troop leaders, camp names “Cammy” (moi, in a camo carhart) and “Bliz” Liz, plus one scout mom and four girls. (Two more had planned to come but got sick the night before.)
We chose to camp at Wolf Lake, where my folks have a cottage. The area had deep snow, and then a tree-busting ice storm, and then more snow, so we couldn’t get down the drive and had to park off the property and hike/drag our gear down to the lake using backpacks and sleds.
We were on site by 1pm, and took our time setting up, mixing work and play. The girls would pull sleds up the steep hill to gather firewood and then sled down with it. They gathered dried marsh grasses for tinder, then fallen twigs for kindling, then branches and finally logs. There is a stone fire ring on the beach, but it took a lot of exploratory holes through the layers of ice and snow to find it, and then the girls took shovels, a hatchet and a saw to dig it out. They laid a “raft” of logs on the icy surface, and then used the paraffin-soaked cardboard egg carton section fire starters we had made at a previous meeting to build a bright and heartening fire.
There was an inch of fluffy snow on top, then a two inch thick crust of icy snow firm enough to support the weight of a semi-portly scout leader, then more snow beneath. It was remarkable to me how much the process — relatively undirected by adults — mimicked a medieval system. First, by choosing a chore, the girls recreated occupational specialization. Two girls set to work making snow blocks with plastic block makers and loading them onto plastic sleds to be taken to the snow shelter build site. Others cut the middle icy layer chunks into squares, until one mom (camp name Abominable Snow Ann) discovered that a small wooden dock offered a slab of frozen ice-snow the size of a TV screen. Then two enterprising Montessorians walked a few feet out on the frozen lake to a frozen floating swim deck, and began “quarrying” squares of saw-cut and shovel-chopped ice-snow to be hauled by sled to the site as well. .
If you imagine the fire ring as the hub of the wagon wheel, the snow shelter was a quarter of the wagon wheel: a 24 foot long semicircular back wall, and a series of “spokes” as the shared walls of three low stall-like rooms. The fronts were open to the fire. We lined each with a tarp and then made a visqueen “roof” across the whole thing, with sturdy branches and ropes as support. “Bliz” laughed that the three women on the completely extemporaneous project could “make art, do autopsies, and make pottery”, but the engineer scout mom had been unable to come!
The camp chairs circled the fire ring and snow flurried down all day and into the night as the girls cooked hotdogs and made dough boys, sledded and built moguls, cooked pie iron pizzas, grilled cheese and fruit pies, gathered firewood, and set up pads and sleeping bags in the little snow rooms. I stuck a big branchy limb in the snow near the shelter and all the wet mittens ended up there, like a bizarre fingery tree. “Disaster” (named for a firewood sled crash) said it looked “Seussical”. Camper “Doughgirl”,(loves doughboys) our main block maker, is not a camper as a rule, but braved Camp Alaska anyway. She wavered between being her usual giggly self, and occasionally succumbing to the cold and weariness. At one point she sat by the fire next to her tarped shelter and harrumphed, “I feel like a HOBO.” :0D
“Fluffy” made some glorious monkey bread that we baked in a dutch oven with embers on the lid, and I made “stone soup” with the contributions of each camper in another dutch oven on the fire. We kept the chai, cocoa and coffee flowing, but by 9pm, every one of us was starting to think about crawling into our warm cocoons. We were all damp — the worst enemy of the winter camper — but Bliz is a sled dog musher, and happened to have extra balaklavas, high tech long johns and enough wool socks so that everybody crawled into a mummy bag with dry clothes and warm feet. We found a lot of interesting places to put our handwarmers: they became foot warmers, butt warmers, head warmers and nose warmers as well.
My little nest was surprisingly cozy, and the fire was close enough to our front flap that it warmed our space nicely. Somewhere in the night the fire burned low, and the snow on the tarps above us melted from our body heat, and the moisture began to creep in as the temp reached the mid-20s. I slept fairly well until light, and then began to have an internal conversation with myself, my warmish bag, my frozen wet boots, and my bladder.
As it turned out. I was glad to be up first and rebuilding the fire, because the lake was snowy, misty and so quiet that any bird who spoke around the lake sounded clear as a bell. Fat robins moved from tree to tree, and in one memorable moment, two white swans flew silently across the white sky above our camp.
None of our campers actually crawled from their snow cocoons looking like beautiful butterflies, but we were all pleased with ourselves that we had “done it”. Camper “skittles” (who came down the hill onher back like a bug) took Fluffy off on a tracking trek through woods too swampy to explore in any other season. Breakfast was oatmeal, bagels toasted over the fire, and assorted pie iron concoctions. Coffee never tasted so good.
By 1pm the fire had burned down, our tarps were rolled up, and we had hauled our gear up that steep hill on sleds and in an improvised tarp-travois. The girls who chattered and sang all the way TO camp alaska were quieter on the return trip, tired and smoky and looking forward to a long bath and a REAL bed tonight.. and the badge we earned by meeting another goal. Yay for Troop 407, girls of courage, confidence and character.