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!


kenkinzle said...

I enjoyed reading the adventure! I think I'll sign my younger boy up for Scouts, such great experiences for them.

Michelle Waclawski said...

Boy Scouts has been an awesome experience for my son. It is great to see how much he steps up to the responsibility (packing and unpacking for his own trips, preparing for meetings, etc.). It is like the "totally boy" type activities.