Monday, January 16, 2012

Winter Camping at 30 Below

While Douglas was in Fairbanks handling the frigid interior, Denver was out camping with the Boy Scouts at Engineer Lake in the Kenai Wildlife Refuge Area near Skilak Lake. It was quite an adventure, so I decided to write about his adventure too.

Ten boys and six adults decided to brave the elements. Denver spent the snow day on Tuesday preparing and packing, with additional tweaks on Wednesday and the final call on Thursday. Friday the weather forecast was for -25, and Denver was a bit nervous.

Some people had gone ahead and packed a path over Engineer Lake with their snowmachines (the snow was 1 to 2 1/2 feet deep but hard packed) and started a fire in the cabin on the other side of the lake. After the kids hiked across the lake (Boy Scouts are not allowed to ride motorized vehicles) they set up their tents, had a powwow in the cabin and then headed to bed. Denver and another boy had one of our very old dome tents. One of the adult leaders told them to open the window and door in it. If they don't, the perspiration can coat the inside of the tent and create a dome of ice and be a suffocation hazard. They had the rain fly on and a tarp over that so there wasn't a lot of air movement despite the windows being open. Denver reported that in the morning the inside of the tent was covered with frost.

Next morning when the kids got up, it was -28 degrees. Denver was toasty warm in the tent all night with 3 pads, 3 sleeping bags and a liner. His tentmate was comfy with 2 sleeping bags, one very heavy one. Of the 10 kids, only one got cold and a couple got cool that night. All were in tents, while the adults were in the cabin. One of the adult leaders was ribbing Denver about having so much gear Friday night before they went to bed, but the next morning he took it back because he'd been cold IN the cabin that night, and Denver was toasty in his sleeping bags in the tent! By time breakfast was over the temperatures had dipped to -30 degrees. At first I thought this strange, but it is always coldest just before sunrise, and sunrise is still a bit after 10 (Denver said with the hills on both sides, it was actually after 11 till it rose).

Now the work began: building a quintzee. There was already a huge quintzee built at that site, but they'd gotten there so late that they didn't have a chance to check out its safety so they did not use it the first night. It would end up sleeping 5 kids that night. The building began with piling their totes and supplies in a big pile. Then they started piling snow over the supplies. When the pile was large enough, they poked foot-long sticks into the snow all over. The snow needs to be at least one foot thick for proper insulation so those would be their guides when they started digging out.

The kids left and ate lunch, leaving the snowpile to sit for 2 or 3 hours. This allows the snow to 'set' or harden. When they came back, they used a snow saw to cut a large block out of the wall of the pile. This would be be the exit for getting all the snow and supplies out of. They started the digging process, and as they came upon supplies they would shove them out the door. Having the supplies allowed them to have less snow that needed to be shoveled out. When the shelter was dug out to the one-foot markers, they took the handle of a snow shovel and poked about 20 airholes all over it. Then they put the snow block back in place and dug an entrance. The entrance is smaller than the hole used for digging out snow. Then they cut a snow slab to put over the entrance, and filled a trash bag with snow to plug the gaps around the slab. They would put this in place after they got in at night, with the help of someone outside.

Four boys were able to fit comfortably inside this quintzee that they built, and though it only dipped to 22 below that night, again, they were all toasty warm. It was about 6 feet across inside and 4 feet tall (I would have liked that better!!).

While the kids were building their quintzee, the Scoutmaster had built a tunnel shelter. There was a natural indentation and he cut snow blocks and put them over the tunnel, effectively making a one-person snow shelter. A scout built a debris shelter. He cut snow blocks and put them in a semicircle, covered it with branches, put a tarp over that and then weighted the tarp down with snow. He slept in that shelter by himself that night, and though it was not as warm, it was significantly less work than a quintzee.

When I asked Denver about his general impressions of the trip, the first thing he said was, "There was not much daylight." Even though it was sunny, the amount of time that the sun was up was probably 5 hours, with some dusk before and after. The quintzee building took pretty much the whole day, with a crew of kids working on it. The other thing he said is that the cabin was essential. They ate their meals in there so they were able to take off their gloves to cook and not freeze their fingers. They also all hung up their sleeping bags during the day to dry them off. And for one kid who did not have good winter gear with him, it kept him from hypothermia (otherwise, he would have been taken home because he did not have warm enough gear to survive). For all his nervousness before he went, Denver just shrugged about the cold. "It wasn't that bad." I'm just shaking my head, trying to imagine -30 degrees as "not that bad." These Boy Scouts! I'm in awe of them! Of the 10 kids on the trip, most of them were 6th or 7th graders, with a handful of high schoolers. Doing things like this really builds their confidence, and gives them experiences that few kids these days have. These boys earned their 100 below badge in one weekend: one degree counts for every degree below 32. It was 62 degrees below freezing the first night, and 54 degrees below freezing the second night.

As the mom at home, I was a bit nervous. Luckily, there was cell phone access at Engineer Lake so the parents back home were facebooking and calling, sharing information and we knew the kids were having a blast and staying warm. I have to chuckle, though, because within 5 minutes of arriving home after that trip, Denver was conked out, asleep over a magazine on the couch, and he slept for 3 hours! So even though he was fully geared up and didn't get cold, and he slept through the night both nights, the cold still sucks the energy out of you.

I have to admit, I really like having a 'survival expert' in my home! Denver is now inspired to get his wilderness survival merit badge--and I'll keep encouraging him!

Fairbanks at 45 Below

The 15-member Homer High School hockey team was heading to Fairbanks for 4 days this past weekend, and since the basketball teams were already in Nome, there wasn't much choice for administrator coverage. Douglas got to go to Fairbanks, and he got to experience -45 degree weather--an experience he is not soon going to forget.

The journey began in Homer where it was snowing heavily and blowing Thursday morning. A late flight out of Homer resulted in missing the connecting flight from Anchorage to Fairbanks. The next flight was over 4 hours later, so Douglas had lots of time to kill in the airport, along with another chaperone for the team (the mom of the only female varsity player) who also missed the flight.

Upon reaching Fairbanks Douglas rushed through the car rental process in order to get to the game that he was supposed to be covering. However, renting a car is a little different there. They give you an extension cord with the rental, and they inform you that if you don't plug in your car, it will cost you $50 to have the car rental company come jump the car for you because it won't start (because it won't). And while nearly every Alaskan we know puts studs on their tires in the winter, the rental cars and vans did not have studded tires so the vehicles were slipping all over the place.

Douglas also discovered that if the hotel doesn't have plugs to plug in your car, you should go find another hotel because that is an essential part of the stay. People either leave their car running all the time or they plug it in. No other choices. And for the most part, places do have plug-ins. For example, the ice arena had plugs with extension cords splaying out in all directions from the parking lot lamp posts.

When things get that cold, certain things happen. For example, each school has a different policy at what temperature the teams cannot travel at. For example, Delta Junction (about 60 miles southeast of Fairbanks) cannot travel if it is colder than 30 below. Houston cannot travel if it is 40 below or colder. Saturday Homer was supposed to play Delta Junction at Delta's outdoor but covered ice arena. They thought it would be warm enough under the cover to play (they can play up to 15 below), but the temperatures were too cold for that. In fact, it was colder than 30 below so Delta Junction had to cancel. There was ice time available at an indoor rink, but it was too cold for the team to travel from their school to the ice arena 40 miles away.

The kids played one game on Thursday and one on Friday, and ended up buying some ice time on Saturday since their game got cancelled. The rest of the time they had to go somewhere and hang out. They were staying at a school so they had to be out of the school by 7:05 a.m. on Friday. That made for a long day of hanging out. Fred Meyers is a popular place to hang because it has food, so the kids would roam for hours. The team was given free tickets to watch the Ice Dogs, the semi-pro local hockey team, play. That stadium was very comfortable with 5000+ seats and warm, quiet seating (sounds like an oxymoron, I know) so that was a pleasant few hours. The kids also watched other high school teams play as 5 or more teams from all over the state were in Fairbanks to play hockey that weekend. All this free time is a prime reason why the school district requires administrator coverage at all out-of-town team travel.

The cold does a number of interesting things: it creates a permanent vapor fog that looks just like regular fog, but it is the result of the extreme cold. The other fun part of the cold is that when you take a cup of hot water and throw it in the air outside it vaporizes--poof! The hotter the water the better the effect. It just looks like talcum powder falling where there was just water moments before. The kids had great fun playing with water and cold air.

Douglas was talking to a firefighter in Fairbanks and he said they have to bundle up really well and then expect to be turned into giant icicles. And if the water flowing through the hoses slows it will freeze so it is very important that they keep the water going.

Finally, when it gets that cold the jets cannot take off or land. Only prop planes can go out. The runways get so slick that they have no traction for landing or taking off. When Douglas was there the Fairbanks airport was closed to jet landings and takeoffs.

It was a fascinating experience, and Douglas was glad to experience it....once. Once is enough. Wow. Our trip up that way at Christmas could have been veeeery different!

Monday, January 9, 2012

Snow Shelter Revisited

After Denver stayed in his snow shelter New Year's weekend, I offered to stay in one with him if he built one in our yard. After we made him shovel off our front porch there was a huge pile of snow so he decided to start working on it. It was ready in time for a Saturday night outing.

We covered the door (as you can see in the picture here) and put a thermometer inside. It was 12 degrees outside and 25 inside (without us in there). We each had two pads (I used two thermarests; Denver a thermarest and a pad). I had 3 sleeping bags while Denver had 2 sleeping bags with a sleeping bag sheet. I wore my hat all night, but nothing on my face, while Denver wore his facemask and balaclava again.

When it was time to crawl in, I went first, scootching my pads in, then going back in the house for my sleeping bags. The shelter was COZY, to put it mildly. The entrance was just wide enough for my shoulders to fit through, and only high enough for me to wiggle in. Once inside, if I laid on my side my shoulder would brush the ceiling. So getting in was a challenge. I took off my boots outside, then wiggled my way into the sleeping bags and dislodged large amounts of snow from the roof as I got my jacket off. By time this was done my hands were frozen so I put my gloves back on to warm up. And I had a moment of panic. I'm not prone to claustrophobia, but there was just enough space for the two of us and there would be no getting out fast. I started saying a calming mantra, closed my eyes and calmed down in a few minutes.

Then Denver came out and did the wiggle in routine. Problem is, the blanket over the door fell off after he got in. I crawled out to put it back up and got completely covered with snow (I didn't have my jacket on!) and then had to wiggle back in, this time with Denver in there. I finally got back in there and all the snow on my shirt started melting so I felt damp, but despite that, I was warm, and my frozen hands had already warmed up. Within 20 minutes I was groggy and....ready to go to the bathroom! NO WAY! I willed myself to sleep.

I woke up a number of times during the night like I usually do when I'm camping. I would check on Denver, do a mental check of myself (ignore bladder!) and then fall back asleep. I was impressed with how comfortable I was. I would say I was more comfortable than I usually am when I am tent camping (could be the two pads!!). The air temperature was fine too. I normally sleep with a blanket over my face, but I was never uncomfortable with the temperature or worried about being too cold. It was an impressively nice experience.

At 6 a.m. I woke up and Denver was shifting around ready to get out. We were both due for a bathroom break--no more delays! That's about the time I usually get up, so I didn't think I'd be getting back to sleep so we headed into the house.

In some ways I think I would prefer a snow shelter to a tent in the winter. I think it would be warmer. On the other hand, it did occur to me that if there were an earthquake that it could be a bad thing. However, it was overall a neat experience, I am glad I did it, and now I think it would be fun to see how little equipment we could do it with--fewer pads and sleeping bags--and still be comfortable!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Snow Shelter

Denver gets all sorts of bright ideas, some of which he follows up on, others that he does not. On New Year's Eve we were in Ninilchik at my aunt and uncle's ranch when Denver decided to build a snow shelter. He was out there piling up the snow and digging out a tunnel within minutes, focused on his new project. Next thing I know he's saying, "I want to sleep in it!" It was 0 degrees out when he said that, with the lows predicted to be -6 for New Year's night. No one there thought he would really do it, including me. Or if he did it, he certainly wasn't going to make it the whole night. In fact, a couple of his cousins said, "We want the second shift when you come in." Denver told them, "If you think I'm going to come in then you don't really know me!" I thought to myself, "I must not know him either!!"

Denver started preparations in earnest, asking me and my cousins for advice on staying warm. I recommended 3 sleeping bags. Denver built a giant plastic bag to put them all in so he (and his sleeping bags!) wouldn't get wet (he was thinking about how wet he got camping in December). He rounded up two foam backpacking-type sleeping pads, and wrapped his pillow in a trash bag also (which I convinced him to take off before he went to sleep, in the name of comfort). He decided to wear long underwear and sweatpants and a sweatshirt, his balaclava and foam facemask. An old sleeping bag would be fitted over the entrance to his snow shelter to keep out the cold.

Come midnight and the end of the fireworks display my cousin Todd put on, Denver prepared to sleep. I went out with him to get him settled in. He stowed his sleeping bags in the tunnel (1 bag inside another, the other on top and plastic trash bags around them all), ditched his boots and jacket and crawled in. He took off his headlamp, I secured the door with a little breathing hole and we said goodnight. It was 12:30 a.m.

At 1 a.m. Douglas checked on Denver, who was still awake and comfortable. At 2:30 a.m. I checked on him, feeling his face (warm) and checking for breath (breathing). At 5 a.m. I checked again: still good. At 8:45 a.m. Douglas checked on him. Denver was awake, warm and just hanging out in his shelter. At 10 a.m. Denver finally came in, thoughtful about his experience and obviously still digesting what he'd done.

My biggest concerns were that 1-he would get frostbit and not wake up to know it, 2-that he would suffocate if there wasn't enough air, or 3-that his facemask would get covered with frost and he would suffocate. It was hard to believe that he could actually be warm in -10 degree weather (Yep! I got to ten below zero that night!). He said he was actually on the too warm side, but he wouldn't have wanted fewer sleeping bags. He slept the entire night and in the morning he had to take off his facemask because he was too warm.

Denver reported he would make a few modifications next time: He would build a deeper tunnel. As it was, if the blanket over the entrance hadn't been there, his head would have been half in and half out of the shelter. He would want his entire head to be inside. He would also build an airhole in the top for additional airflow in case the blanket was put on too tightly. Finally, he would take a thermometer inside the shelter with him to see how warm it got in there. Supposedly it would be at least 32 degrees inside a snowcave as the snow provides excellent insulation. The Boy Scouts have a campout planned for next weekend so he will have an opportunity to try out the modifications. And I told Denver if he ever builds a snow shelter in our yard that I'll sleep in it with him. I want to try this too!!