Wisconsin

Whoa! Winter Camping

I stand among the pine trees in the wilderness of Wisconsin and let my feet sink deep into the snow. I look down at the weather app on my iPhone. It’s twenty degrees and getting colder. “What am I doing here?”

Several weeks earlier, my intention is to find more ways to be in nature. In my quest to find a mid-west wilderness experience, I discover Nick of the Woods. A guy that looks like a young Grizzly Adams and organizes camping MeetUps. His events are the perfect solution for me. So, I sign up to go winter camping – in Wisconsin – in  D E C E M B E R.

At orientation, I learn a few winter survival skills. From camping gear to tips to stay warm and lighting a fire without matches. But, it’s when I drive home where thoughts of zen in the wilderness turn into a fear of freezing to death. My mind turns to movies such as Alive, where a rugby team crashes into the Andes Mountains and turn to cannibalism as they freeze to death. The Revenant with Leonardo DeCaprio, who fights for survival in the Alaskan snowy wilderness after being mauled by a bear. Who’s idea is this winter camping anyway?

I don’t give up easily – and begin to obsess over the wool content of socks. My logic is, if wool is one of the best insulators and my feet are warm enough, everything else will be okay. For weeks, I scour the internet reading sock labels, searching for socks with a hundred percent wool. But, they are impossible to find. Did you know that SmartWool socks are blended with nylon and have less than sixty percent wool blended in them? If you put your feet next to the fire, they will literally melt right off. So, if you want to sleep outdoors, in twenty-degree weather, SmartWool is not so smart.  My survival research on socks does not comfort me. So, I research further to gain a deep technical knowledge of cold weather clothing for the summit of Mt. Everest. 

On the day of departure, knowing i’ve done the best i can, I stuff every cold weather item I have into the back of my supercharged MiniCooper. From base layers that wick moisture to insulation layers that stay warm and outer shells that stay dry. Including three sleeping bags; two down jackets; a thick winter fleece and a rain jacket; two pairs of wool base-layer bottoms; four pairs of base-layer tops; three pairs of not so SmartWool socks, fleece-lined insulated boots; and a deluxe Thermarest sleeping pad. All for twenty-four hours in the mid-west wilderness of Wisconsin.

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I step back to assess. Is this enough? And, I remember two days earlier. Nick said, there was no snow on the ground. “Lesley, you got this.” And, I start to drive north on I-94, with a feeling of adventure in the air and NPR on the radio. I drive past Highland Park, Lake Forest, Racine. As I pass Milwaukee, something goes wrong. S H I T !  There’s snow on the ground. I try not to freak out with scenes of Hollywood movies again. I go into survival mode and search for any positive psychology lesson I’ve learned in my lifetime to change my reality. I repeat the affirmation. “I am safe and secure.  will not freeze to death. I am safe and secure. I will not freeze to death.” As I continue to drive north, suburban sprawl fades into small town farms. Bright red barns sit against the blanket of pristine white snow. I realize there’s nothing I can do to change my reality…. except, take Exit 119 and stop at Dicks Sporting Goods, in Oshkosh Wisconsin, to search for wool socks with one hundred percent wool.

I arrive at the campsite, before dark, to set up my tent on frozen ground. As I stand among the pine trees, I let my feet sink deeper into the snow. I look down at the weather app on my iPhone. It’s twenty degrees and getting colder. “What the hell am I doing here?”

Our group huddles around the campfire. Nick has set up a large parachute over the fire to keep the heat closer to the ground. It hovers in the forest like a giant space ship. Next to it, is a heated canvas tent with a wood stove inside. We experiment with cast iron cooking. I bake bread in a Dutch oven over the fire, while others grill steaks and make hot chocolate. Carbs, fat and sugar help you stay warm in cold temperatures. Winter camping is not that bad.

In the back of my mind, I’m worried. Because I know, when I step away from our space ship, the air is F R E E Z I N G cold and there’s a high possibility of hypothermia. Will I wake up? Isn’t anyone else concerned?

Steve, one of Nick’s wilderness assistants, walks over to me and asks how I am doing. I laugh because I am scared. I tell him, “To be honest, I’m worried about freezing to death. I am not ready to die.” I read off my list of gear. We both laugh at the reality of winter camping and guides me through what to do. “Sleep inside two of the sleeping bags, one inside the other. Use the third as padding underneath. The ground is where you lose body heat. Wear less than more so, you don’t sweat. It is your sweat that will make you cold. Fill a water bottle with hot water and put it inside your sleeping bag.” You will be fine.

Around midnight, I walk the dark snowy path to my tent and make my cocoon. I put on my new socks with seventy-percent wool, cuddle up to my hot water bottle, push aside any fears and fall asleep. 

I wake up. And, laugh. This time because it was 7 a.m. And, I knew my fear had taken me on a journey of its own. I take a deep breath of fresh air to enjoy the moment of being alive. I crawl out of my tent and walk over to the campfire to greet the others. Nick is cooking donuts over the fire, in a heated pot of oil suspended by a chain. He pulls a fresh donut from the pot, rolls it in sugar and cinnamon and offers it to me. I take a bite of the campfire donut. It’s warm and sweet. Hands down the best donut I ever. And, I remember my question from yesterday. “What the hell am I doing here?”  I look up and say to Nick,  “This donut is the reason why I am here.”