By Bear Paulsen
Why would anyone go camping in the winter? From my experience ‘insane’ is the most frequent adjective applied to those of us who willingly camp in the winter. The general public uniformly believes winter campers to be crazy masochists. Most people cannot fathom what would possess someone to trade shelter and warmth for discomfort and snow. As the non-winter camper further considers the irrationality of winter camping, they invariably question how campers stay clean, and even more so how they go to the bathroom. Those considerations usually end the conversation with a shudder and firmer conviction of the winter camper’s mental instability.
Travelling in the winter requires a great deal of planning and forethought, two qualities not often associated with the looney
farm. Any winter camper who fails to prepare will be uncomfortable at the least. And it’s true winter camping does have a steep learning curve. Beginning winter campers commonly return to warmth and shelter earlier than planned. However, experienced campers can survive most any weather and take great pleasure in their hardiness. They enjoy the challenge of living and surviving in the cold. They relish their ability to thrive in conditions that are cause for winter weather warnings and road closures. Winter campers are a breed apart, a small fraternity that willingly accepts new members because there are few applicants.
Winter is the quietest and loneliest season. It’s fortunate that only a few people want to winter camp. The silence and palpable isolation would vanish if the wilderness were as well used as in the summer. Silence and isolation are hard to find in the summer partly due to the presence of other campers. However, and more significantly, silence really does not exist in the summer at all; insects, animals and sounds of water create a lively cacophony. Similarly the long days of summer minimize feelings of isolation; isolation is felt most poignantly at night. The long, dark winter night envelopes you with a profound isolation to which no summer experience can compare.
Winter has a beauty all its own. The beauty stems from absence. An absence of both sounds and sights.
In the winter there are few sounds competing for your attention, often only the wind through the trees. Many sounds of winter have a certain harshness to them: the squeak caused by walking on the snow when the temperature is well below zero; the rifle shot of sap exploding in a conifer; the cracking and groaning of lake ice. Much of winter’s sparse music is otherworldly; it is foreign. Standing on a lake while it gently thunders and moans under your feet inspires fear. Sounds that are commonplace in the summer provide magic in the winter. The sound of a babbling brook is greeted with amazement by new winter travellers because open water is a rarity. They are surprised to hear open water and captivated by the unique beauty of the scene. The water’s melody is unlike any other sound in the winter. Open water provides a rare auditory and visual bouquet.
Silence magnifies the beauty of winter. Silence serves to exacerbate the monochromatic, uniformly white winter world. Pictures of the winter wilderness invariably capture a white desert. After a day filled with endless white vistas a sunset defies words. A winter sunset lacks the garishness of a summer one. It allows no bright or gaudy colors. Winter’s palate consists of gentle pastels. Tahose pastels are sublime when placed on a white backdrop. Winter’s beauty does not scream nor beg for our attention; its request is gentle. A winter sunset is a like a woman without makeup, beautiful in her own right.
Winter also gently introduces us to our own insignificance. As we travel during the day the cold will challenge our comfort. As day descends into night we will find ourselves in a world that blatantly ignores our comfort. The ever present cold is constantly ready to sap our morale. There are no bugs in the winter, but the cold is far more omnipresent. With the cold creeping into our bones and impenetrable darkness gathered around, our complete insignificance is demonstrated clearly. However, this feeling of insignificance is a gift of the highest magnitude. Humility is granted when we accept our own lack of importance.
The abyss of the star encrusted night sky has a fierce beauty like no other. Celestial infinity magnifies our sense of insignificance. The starry blackness above bestows humility and inspires a sacred feeling of awe. Confronted by the icy infinity, we accept our insignificance and feel frightened reverence. Paul Gruchow, the late Minnesota writer, touches on this glorious fear in his book The Necessity of Empty Places: “The word ‘fear’ once had two meanings. It meant the emotion one feels in the face of danger, but it also signified reverential awe, as in the phrase ‘the fear of God.’” Combine the isolation, silence and cold of a winter night deep in the wilderness with infinite stars, groaning lake ice and aurora borealis dancing in the sky, and you will feel reverential awe.
Why would anyone winter camp? You should head out in the winter if you’ve complained about how busy the wilderness is during the summer months. In winter there is no competition for campsites. You will find the isolation that all warm weather visitors seek. The isolation will challenge you. The cold will challenge you as well. Regard these challenges as the gifts they are. Your admission to the fraternity of winter campers will be the stuff of endless tales. You’ll enjoy the camaraderie of close friends gathered around a campfire surrounded by the silent, black isolation of a winter night. You may even have the pleasure of listening to the eerie music of the lakes. Regardless, the vast black star studded sky will cause you to question your own importance. And, that is a good thing.
Bear Paulsen is at home in the wilderness canoeing and winter camping, two activities that allow him to take extended trips to remote places. He loves to explore northern Minnesota, northwestern Ontario, and Manitoba and has winter camped in WI, UT, MT, ID, MI, and the Yukon as well. With more than 365 days winter camping, his longest solo journey was 22 days crossing the BWCAW. When he’s not in the wilderness you’ll find him working as General Manager at Northstar Canoes.
Read more in the Spring 2014 issue of Wilderness News