December 29, 2013

North Cairn: Happy campers even in the cold

If temperatures do not dip to the single digits and no freezing rain coats the deck with a fine veneer of ice, the dog and I might welcome the new year by camping at the edge of the woods.

It will take some doing, of course, at least half a day, I figured one night before Christmas while we were ice-locked in the house and I was beginning to relieve scenes from the Endurance’s thwarted push to the South Pole nearly 100 years ago.

I stood by the kitchen windows, swabbing the deck of the counter and imagined erecting a tent spacious enough for the dog and me, tried to picture the wrestling match that would ensue when I set about wrapping us – woman and dog – in a thick sub-zero-capacity sleeping bag. I weighed the benefits of a camp bed, the problem of cold air circulating underneath and overhead; calculated the odds of catching sight of shooting stars through the flimsy netting of the roof and side panels.

I like the idea; in theory, of course, but less in practical, realistic terms. My blown knee would send a howl of pain shooting through me if I knelt and tried to set up a dome tent, even with flexible poles. The vision of cuddling with a young dog who has gone from 14 pounds to 50 in four months triggers all the comic relief needed to calm imprudent fantasies about survival in the elements.

True, we could always come indoors if the venture became more agony than invention. But I am an extremist by nature, in nature, and I have wanted to do some winter camping for many years.

With that in mind, I once even took to the Mohawk Trail in northwestern Massachusetts in late December and set up camp in an unheated cabin with a wood stove more like a fire barrel for a homeless gathering than a cheering pot-bellied cast iron hearth. The dog I had then, a dominant female golden who was almost always spoiling for a fight, came along, too. So when it became clear coyotes were in residence nearby, I wasn’t as alarmed as I tend to be now, hearing the yapping of a pair near the cabin.

It was a magical and safe four days separated from civilization. Naturally, the fire wore itself out every night about 2 a.m., and we shivered until dawn. I’m sure we were accompanied by mice, but I didn’t actually see them, so I let denial comfort me and appease my anxieties.

Besides, rangers came to check on us a few times during the brief stay, once we bivouacked and had settled in. It helped to know trouble would be discovered soon, even if not soon enough.

We saw no bears and only the cloven tracks of the hooves of deer. An astonishing array of birds were busy all day long in the cold and snow, right up until the edge of dark.

But the best parts, other than hardship that reminds us we are alive and still fighting, were the creatures of the day and the attendants of the night that go unnoticed in our routine wakeful worry or during the oblivion of sleep: needle-pricks of starlight in the tapestry of the night sky; the thud of snowshoes on hard pack; the squeal of cross-country skis and the complaint of the arms of a nylon ski jacket against the torso, as the necessary labor of dragging in wood went on and on; the inconvenience of a hand-held can opener to get to anything that could be cooked and eaten from the same container. Fewer dishes and less cutlery: the home economics of survival in the cold.

So we watch and wait, and cherish the nights of heat and electrical power that make our preparations simple and absurd. Why give up our comforts, even temporarily?

For a taste of wilderness, controlled though it might be.

For the recollection of our stronger selves, more willing to endure exertion, closer kin to adventure and conquest outdoors.

My battles are smaller and more manageable today than they used to be, when I was physically better prepared for such exploits.

But now and then I need to be reminded of the strenuous bliss of being up against the elements and still having the resolve and reserves to prevail.

That would be the perfect attitude, I know, to face the unknown and the sparkling new year.

North Cairn can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

ncairn@pressherald.com

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