As a boy scout, I was really fortunate to be a member of the best troop around, the legendary Troop 136 of Elyria. We churned out Eagle Scouts like Detroit makes cars, and we did so because of great leaders who were stone cold camping fanatics. Most troops went camping three times a year, whenever the weather permitted. Troop 136 went every month, come rain sleet or snow. I don’t remember a campout ever being cancelled for any reason, especially not for the weather.
In the deep of winter, we did something called “Camp Alaska”. Before Les “Survivorman” Stroud, before Bear Grills, we were camping in the January snows in Northern Ohio, without tents. That’s right; given limited resources and tools, we boys made our own shelters (usually out of drop cloths or mattress covers) and then we slept in them. The experience did one terrific thing for us, if nothing else; it gave us confidence in ourselves that there was no outdoors situation we couldn’t endure.
Years later I reflect on that experience, and the extraordinary men like Bob Dempsey and Larry Stevanus who saw us through it as Scoutmasters. I think about how much grief they must have had to bear from parents who put their boys in their care, knowing exactly what they were up to. I wonder if this is even possible to do today given the litigious nature of our society and the accepted culture of momma’s boys who cling to their mother’s aprons (if mothers still wore aprons).
I remember lying in the dark, my mummy sleeping bag pulled tight down around my face. I was uncomfortably cold but tired enough to drift off to sleep when I was startled to hear the voice of Assistant Scoutmaster Larry Luther standing over me.
“Byron, are you okay?”
“Yes, Mr. Luther. What’s wrong?”
“Well I could see your breath condensing on the plastic sheeting, and then it frosted over and…”
“I know. It’s actually snowing in here!” I said, with a little cheer through my almost chattering teeth.
“Well, alright. I was just thinking if anything happened to you, your Dad would…”
“I’m fine, but I really appreciate it. Goodnight.”
I think I was thirteen at the time of that conversation, but I remember it well. Winter camping is the hardcore of camping. There’s no occasion for swimming and canoeing or playing ball and all the traditional activities of camp. The things you do tend to closely revolve around your survival and maintaining your comfort. You gather a lot of wood, you tend the fire a lot, you check your shelter and your gear. Basic tasks like cooking and fetching water take longer, and it takes team work to get it all done.
Your conversations are different too. There are fewer distractions, less levity. You tend to be more serious, and make less small talk. The conversations I had with those Scout leaders at winter camp taught me that few words are better, just stop yacking and get the job done. People today would rather talk than work. However, when you’re alone, it’s really quiet and it’s in these times you have the serious conversations with yourself.
I guess that’s why I still find time for winter camping today, alone. It’s a check on my skills, a chance to stretch the wire tight and make sure I’m still half as tough as I think I am. It’s a chance to wake up in the morning, stare around at the emptiness of the woods and note that I am the only one here. I am the only one sick enough to do this when most folks are swatting their alarm clocks in rooms that are fifty degrees warmer than my tent, and cursing their “cold floor” at that. I am the only one who is having a brutally honest examination of my inner self and reveling in the gift that is a tin cup of coffee to warm my fingers around. I think most of the time it’s inconvenient, or even uncomfortable for us to be this alone with our thoughts. But I find that there’s no therapy in the world like it and just one session can get me by for several months.
So that’s how I started this this winter day, in the outdoors, with the clear air and a clear mind. If you get to watch a sunrise on such a day, it’s surely the occasion to thank the Creator for the gift of your life. And if you have the power of reflection and a page in the newspaper, it’s a good occasion to thank those who taught you to enjoy the gift of camping in the winter time.