Monday, January 26, 2009

January Winter Camping at Jones Spring

I’ve fallen behind on a few things lately, so this entry is coming in over a week late! I went winter camping last weekend… I mean the one before this past weekend. The cold one. The one that was forecasted to be 30 degrees below zero with the wind chill. Not this past weekend that was 35 degrees above zero with the sun shining… you get the idea!

Okay, so there’s my mini-rant about how whenever I go winter camping, it seems to land on either the coldest weekend of the year, or the second coldest weekend of the year. Thankfully, this was probably the second. But it was still cold! And I know it sounds like pure complaining, but I do enjoy the challenge, so in the end I suppose I'm thankful for the chilliness to keep the adventure extreme...

Rants aside, there is definitely a plus-side of things. It was cold, but it wasn’t as windy as we thought it would be. That may be because we picked just the right campsite, or because the wind just wasn’t so bad. Honestly, it doesn’t matter to me! I’m just glad it turned out as well as it did. And there’s one other plus-side to this whole thing – I had a really awesome time!

It was just three of us brave souls. Me, Kweejee (Tim), and Ken. Friday after work I picked up Kweejee, and from there he and I drove to Neenah and picked up Ken. We head straight up to the Nicolet National Forest, swung in at a gas station for a snack or five, then head down Fanny Lake Road to one of our favorite spots to camp thus far in our backpacking/camping experiences. By the way, the snacks I picked up (because this is extremely important information I need to share), was a sugary-sweet cappuccino, a peanut-butter-cup cookie, and a small bag of chili-cheese Fritos (for the emergency fire-starter kit, of course… ahem).

When we arrived, it was already dark, but we had planned on that. My bad fortune came right off the bat with a dead headlamp. Always carry an extra set of batteries, folks! I had just replaced them, but something was haywire… I should’ve had an extra set in my emergency kit… thankfully I did have a small Maglite… that I accidentally ended up shoving into the roof of my mouth later in the night as I held it in my teeth while trying to do something with my hands. I bumped it and shoved it back across my teeth and jammed it good. That hurts, by the way… extra batteries are goooood.

So anyway… we started our hike in (the site we were thinking about is less than a mile from the parking lot). We got to the first site, and as soon as we stepped off the nicely-groomed cross-country ski trails, we stepped down into knee-deep snow, trudged through the trees and decided to turn around and keep walking. The wind was blowing off of Fanny Lake really strong. The next couple of sites were just as bad or worse, being more open to the lake. We finally rested in a site right off the trail with decent tree-coverage and a little spot for 3 tents tucked as close to the woods as we could get.

We never did find the fire ring in the deep snow. We dug a big hole and got it going first try – because we ROCK!! Apparently there had been a mouse living in one of my wood boxes… and since his little “tinder” home had been vacated, we put it to use, and it lit up nicely! No Fritos needed… so I ate ‘em later.

The snow was deep, as I’ve mentioned a couple of times, so we all tried to sort of “stomp” a place to set up our tents. The snow was soft at this point so it all kind of fell back into the hole you’d dig out of. I gave up and just started setting up. By the way… quick review on the MSR Hubba Hubba tent – if you’ve set it up before, it’s possible to set it up in the pitch dark, freezing cold, without much of a problem! Ken did borrow me his headlamp when I got to the hooking the fly on. It’s a pretty tight fit, and the Maglite kept falling out of my mouth and into the snow. I eventually just gave up on that and set it up blindly. But it worked! Yay!

Once the tents were set up we warmed up by the fire, and laughed about Ken and Kweejee’s growing beard icicles. Sounds like they may have stuck to their jackets a little bit, so quick movements of the head apparently pulled a little. I’m glad I don’t have a beard, by the way!

Kweejee had Dinty Moore (open can on the fire) for dinner, and I was a little jealous. My and Ken’s Jetboils were performing poorly due to the cold, even after warming our gas cans in our jackets. We were both able to eat, and that’s what’s important. Oh, another winter-camping lesson learned – no matter how cold it is, wash the dishes. The next morning I had trouble getting the stove out of frozen tomato-parmesan noodle water that was stuck to the side of my Jetboil container. Yuk!

We stood around the fire and chit-chatted as I blew snot-rockets (sorry, I guess I am no “lady” when I’m camping), we all giggled from cold-delirium about this and that, and we had a theory to stay up as late as we could thinking that was less time away from the fire -- we finally hit the hay… er snow… around midnight-ish, I think… Kweejee brought a thermometer he found around the house. By the time we went to bed, the temps were already dipping down to a bone-chilling “Ideal for Freezer.” Apparently it was a freezer thermometer, but it’s readings were plenty for us to get the idea. I believe it got down to 6 or 7 below zero when we went to bed, and who knows with the wind chill.

Ken mentioned his -20 degree rated sleeping bag, and I shivered at the thought of mine compared to that. I’ve always bragged about my 5-degree bag, but it’s been so long since I’ve washed it, it’s probably rated a 50-degree bag right now. Yeah, it needs to be done before its next use. I heard Kweejee settling in his tent for about as long as I was settling in mine. Ken was sawing logs about 5 minutes after he crawled in. I gotta get me one of them bags!

I had my sleeping bag tucked inside of a cheapo Wal-Mart bag that we got for Adam to use in the summer, I had my down jacket down by my feet, along with my socks for Saturday, a 5-liter bladder of water, and my boots tied in a garbage bag (I don’t know how that all fit down there, but it did). I also had a body warmer down by my feet, 2 sleeping pads underneath me, and I was wearing every piece of clothing I brought except for the fleece pants I had intended to sleep in but realized quickly there was no freakin’ way I was gettin’ down to bare skin just to change my pants in that cold air. Once my warmers were shook up and heating up, I rolled onto my side and started to drift off to sleep. I woke a couple times in the night and condensation from my breathing dripped onto my face. Kinda’ nasty, but all part of the camping experience! I’m still sorry Ken and Kweejee had to experience all the snot-rockets. I was polite enough to turn away and miss their boots, though!

Oh, and to continue my grossness while I’m on a roll, when you’re eating something yummy and warm in the freezing cold (in this case is was my tomato-parmesan noodles), your nose tends to drip continuously and it’s impossible to stop. Some people salt their food… need I say more?

We woke up to sunlight. Ken was up first, and the apple wood he brought burned all night and left embers, so he was able to get the fire going right away again. Kweejee and I finally got up the courage and rolled out of our tents. We made a little breakfast (pop-tarts), enjoyed the beautiful winter wonderland around us, the quietness of cold air, and finally started to break camp. We’d take off the fly, then warm our hands on the fire. We’d pack up our sleeping bag, then warm our hands on the fire. We’d pack a couple more things, and warm our hands on the fire. We continued this routine until everything was in its appropriate stuff sack and shoved into the proper corner of our backpacks. We then trucked back to the parking lot, which had an enclosed pit toilet – complete with real toilet paper. What a morning blessing.

What an awesome, challenging, winter-camping fun time! This was the first time I actually set my tent up in snow that deep and slept by myself in the cold! It wasn’t bad at all. I wasn’t afraid of hearing any animals – the bears are sleeping, so that helps. I ate my Snickers bar before I fell asleep though, so I was okay anyway. The only scary thing was Kweejee’s creaking tree. Apparently he had reason to fear the creaking tree… if we went back to visit that site now, that tree would probably be laying over the exact spot where he set up his tent. Yeah, I have to admit, that’s a little scary.

After throwing our stuff in the car, we drove around the park a little ways and parked at a different trailhead. There was this hill we had in mind. It was a big hill. It’s one that we hiked up in the summer months and thought it was brutal! The cross-country ski signs display a black diamond with a very sharp zigzagged line on them, and they read, “Very difficult.” So we thought, “what better place to go sledding!?”

We hiked to the hill and quickly remembered how steep it really was. We were kinda scared! Ken brought a little rocket sled that was super fast, and I hauled my wood sled out there. We had fun going down on both of them. We all had great wipe-outs with Ken’s super-fast sled. We’d get almost to the bottom and we’d roll two or three times as the snow flew up around us, in our ears, our pants, our gloves, hats flying off… it was awesome! Nobody broke anything, but I think we all had a few sore muscles the next day in places we didn’t realize we had muscles.

And here's a little video of Ken's roll at the bottom of the hill. We sure got a lot of momentum going!

All in all this was a super-fun winter camping trip. Ken and Kweejee are fun cold-camping buddies. People think we’re crazy, but it’s not too bad if you have the right clothes and if your sleeping bad isn’t down to 2 layers of sil-nylon and 3 clumps of down… nah, it’s still okay. We really did have an awesome time. I hope I get one more winter camp in before the snow melts. There is a peacefulness about winter. Nobody else was in that entire park. There were no pole marks from skiers, no footprints from hikers, no snowshoe tracks, either. It was serene, quiet, pretty… and we had great company to keep our minds off the frozen toes!

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