While mid-March is very spring-like in the most of the United
States, it still counts as winter in Alaska. During the weekend our winter camp
the Iditarod dog sled race is in full swing as are the North American Open Dog
Sled Championships in Fairbanks. The weather has been generally mild of late,
with lows between -10 and zero and highs near the freezing mark. This bodes well
for our annual winter outing, which most years has us traveling in much harsher
conditions. Interestingly, the warmer than usual conditions resulted in some
unexpected challenges worth noting. As you read the story click on the
thumbnails to see larger images.
Saturday March 13th
Tim France, Bob Hunter and I met at the parking lot at Skinny Dick's Halfway Inn", a rather ramshackle excuse for an Inn with no more claim to fame than it's risqué' name and it's convenient location.
From Skinny Dick's it was a quick three mile run to our trailhead. Our
journey would take us down Bob's trapline to a site where we would establish a
semi-permanent camp site for future use, perhaps as a moose hunting camp later
in the year. The trail is part of the old gold-rush era Nenana to Fairbanks mail
route, where mail was taken by dogsled to and from the railhead at the Nenana
Tim was only out for the morning as was lightly laden, carrying only those small things he needs for a day of shooting. Bob drew his baggage on a sledge he had constructed only the night before, and was fairly heavily loaded as he chose to bring along a cross-cut saw, and extra oilcloths for use on the structure, and a heavy bison robe for a more comfortable bed. He was accompanied by his large hunting dog, a beautiful black Labrador Retriever named Jaeger. Jaeger was not engaged to pull cargo.
I had my typical winter gear including provisions of buffalo meat, wild rice and lyed Indian corn (hominy) from my stores. My winter bedroll consists of two woolen blankets wrapped in an untreated canvas canoe sail. I had not known of Bob's intent to bring extra tarpaulins, so the load on my sledge was covered in an untreated piece of coarse canvas of the type I use during summer to protect trade goods. I had my large dog, Chinook to draw my baggage upon my sledge. Bob and I each had snowshoes lashed amongst our cargo.
It took a very short time to realize that traveling this trail would be a taxing endeavor. The trail was not so firmly packed as we had imagined it would be and the recent temperatures ranging from night time lows well below zero to daytime highs near thawing leaves the snow very unstable. The trail was very punchy so that sometimes we would enjoy good footing, but at others we would break through, throwing us off our balance. Such conditions require a lot of work and energy to move about. The dogs, being lighter than we humans, were not so badly affected as were the men.
We had gone less than a 1/4 mile before I had stripped off my waistcoat and hat, loading them into the sledge with the rest of my gear. Even dressed in only trousers and flannel shirt I was sweating profusely and having much difficulty to make progress. The trail traverses some delightful country, though. At first it skirts across the muskeg at the head of a pond, then enters into wooded country where it forms a narrow lane through dense black spruce. As it goes further along the ridge the black spruce opens up to allow more birch and larger white spruce to grow. As we drew near our campsite the woods opened up further to form a large grove of birch. At the far end of that grove, where we again encountered more white spruce, we elected to establish your camp. It had taken us about two hours to hike no more than one and one-half miles.
I had lagged behind Bob and Tim, which is not unusual. I tend to travel slowly even on a good trail. Our first task was to drag in plenty of dry firewood, which was easy enough as there is quite a fair amount of standing dead wood in this area. Tim struck a fire and boiled up a thick pot of chocolate which was greatly appreciated, as we were all near exhaustion from struggling on that punchy trail. Even the dogs were content to take a break. During our break I realized that I had lost a scalping knife that had been tucked under my sash. Tim promised he would keep an open eye for it on his way out. As we regained some semblence of energy Tim bid us adieu as he intended to hunt his way back out and return to his own home. Meanwhile Bob and I set about creating our camp.
Because Chinook had lost his ID tags at the trail head, and we were unable to find them, I was uncomfortable letting him run free around camp. I chained him to a nearby tree while we worked, giving him a bed of boughs. He must have been one tired puppy, as it took him very little time to fall asleep.
Our original intent had been to create an open faced cabin with a framework roof
over which a tarpaulin or blankets might be thrown at any time to provide
shelter. We also intended to create a good fireplace with a reflector. The goal
is to make it very easy to set up a camp in this place in order to focus on the
pursuit of game, rather than having to spend a great deal of time setting up a
camp. We had planned on having at least twice as many people along, so we knew
we wouldn't be able to create quite so extensive a house as we had originally
Instead, we chose to make a solid lean-to reflector which we can elaborate on in the future. Bob used a snowshoe to clear the area down to the ground. Ground beneath the snow is almost always 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the surface of the snow. We needed boughs to make a bed, and we also needed good sound poles to create the structure, so we set to work felling spruce trees that would provide both. Once such spruce pole was longer and more stout than the others, which we decided we would mount between two trees to serve as the ridge-pole of our lean-to. We then cut two solid supports with crotches that we used to prop the ridege pole against our support trees. This is technique I first saw on a survival structure up on the old Eagle trail several years ago, and have used myself ever since. It allows us a very solid way to support the ridgepole without having to carry extra rope, nails or other fasteners. It's also much more solid than anything we might tie into place.
Because our ridgepole was quite long, it wanted to sag in the center. We cut a notch into a post to use as a support, which makes the structure stiffer and more secure than would otherwise be the case. Not having a rear wall, we left our poles on the long site and lay then into place. This gives us a bit more sitting head room and creates a space at the head of our bed where we can store equipment out of the weather.
Having more than enough tarps along, we spread out our boughs to make a nice thick insulating bed beneath us, covered those with a tarp, and then covered the shelter itself with tarps to exclude any wind that might blow during the night. The photo below shows Bob tossing boughs into the frame to form a nice insulated bed.
We made a tall tripod on which we can hang our kettles to cook and I started cutting up our meat to cook with the hominy and wild rice for supper. While I was thus engaged Bob felled a dead birch tree and cut the trunk into lengths to prop against the rear of the tripod to form a wall that reflects heat into our lean-to shelter.
The result is a very cozy and comfortable shelter than is easily maintained, easy to live in, and can be heated to a fairly nice degree.
We each recorded the days events in our journals as our dinner cooked steadily over the fire. The photo at left is of Bob jotting down his thoughts. To the right is a photo of our fireplace with our dinner boiling in the kettle.
It had been a rather arduous day yet the result was satisfying. We both thought it a shame that we would only be spending a single night in our shelter, at least on this trip. The photo below is of me enjoying the shelter of our lean-to reflector.
We were grateful to crawl into our beds and with
the dogs snuggled close, we both enjoyed a warm night of restful sleep. The
temperature overnight was somewhere between zero and -10 degrees which we
consider warm during our winter camps.
Sunday, 14th Instant:
I was awake well before Bob, which is unusual. In fact, I was up long enough to strike a fire and brew coffee before my younger companion stirred. I wonder if he planned it that way? In any event, the moccasins we had been wearing yesterday were frozen so solidly that there was no hope of donning them immediately. We had removed our liners and slept with them so they were dry enough, and I had a pair of regular moccasins with me, so it was no problem moving around camp. We built up the fire and sort of eased into the day, thawing moccasins. We fed the left overs from supper to the dogs and used the kettle to fry up bacon while Bob used a very small kettle to cook up some cornmeal mush flavored with some chocolate. We took our sweet time packing up for the return trip. We had discussed the bad trail and had decided we would wear our snowshoes on the way out. Usually we avoid doing so when the trail is packed but with the trail being so churned up the day before we figured the "paws" would provide better traction and might make it easier to maintain our balance.
We had our plunder packed and ready to head out about 12:30. The trip out was largely unremarkable except that Bob found the scalping knife I had lost on the way in about half-way back to the trail head. Also, wearing the snowshoes made the trip out MUCH faster than the trip in had been. We made the trip in half the time that we had required the day before. I imagine that we will return to this site later in the year to add log walls to our structure, raise it just a bit, and build a more permanent fireplace for it. We might even be tempted to build a thatched or sod roof for it. Even if we don't make the improvements we nonetheless have a handy campsite that can be made ready for use in the less than 10 minutes.
Lessons learned or reinforced:
Don your snowshoes early when trail conditions are punchy, even if you don't think they are truly necessary.
It is really helpful to plan logistics with your trail partners in advance. Although we had planned our provisioning well, on this trip we carried much more tarpaulin than was necessary.
Ground sheltered by snow is usually 10 to 15 degrees warmer than the snow surface.
Forked trees can be used to support a ridgepole rather than using cordage or other fasteners. This allows you to either carry less or to conserve your resources for other purposes.
A reflector behind your fire will help heat your shelter considerably.