Thursday, January 8, 2009

January 2005: Winter Survival

It was particularly cold and raw morning on the platform at Westport waiting for the 5:30 am train to the city. One of the platform regulars, Bob, who grew up in Iowa was commenting how the blowing snow and bitter cold of this morning reminded him of winters from his childhood when winters were winters and nobody ever heard about global warming or holes in the ozone layer. Another regular commented that her son was going on a camp out over the weekend with the Boy Scouts. Everyone kind of oohed, aahed, or groaned contemplating camping in the dead of winter.

Once on the train, just as I was settling in for a short winters nap, I was thinking about a great winter camping experience from days as a Boy Scout. Troop 223 in Detroit was based at Robert Burns Elementary School. It was a great troop because of both the boys and the dedicated Dads that lead us.

There were three of us, three friends, all Life Scouts on the verge of becoming the second, third and fourth Eagle Scouts of the Troop: Brad Lackie, Tim Miller and me. We were in the same grade and knew each other for our entire scouting and school experience.

Mr. Lackie, Brad’s father, came up with the idea of a Winter Survival Campout in which we would go out on a Friday night with whatever we could carry on our backs and return on Sunday afternoon. We were to be on our own, with no adult help. Mr. Lackie would take us up to his family farm in Hale Michigan, about a three to four hour drive North up Rt. 23 from our neighborhood in Detroit. Until then, our winter camping experience was limited to staying in an unheated barracks style cabin at Camp Howell. That experience could be cold but we would have been hard pressed to say that we were roughing it.

Mr. Lackie envisioned a real winter, survival experience. He wanted it to be an annual event for senior scouts and even custom made patches that the “survivors” could proudly display on their uniforms. Tim, Brad and I were to be the first scouts to experience what Mr. Lackie hoped would be a kind of right of passage in the Troop. The year was 1968; we were fifteen years old and in the 9th Grade. We were more than excited to do this.

We talked a lot about what to take or not to take in terms of gear or food. Brad actually went out and shopped for the appropriate gear. He and his father hit the Army surplus store and bought the right clothes and sleeping bag. I remember mostly the gloves. They were the biggest, largest, fluffiest and longest artic tundra backcountry gloves I had ever seen. I recall Tim seriously studying about and building snares. He really wanted to snare a rabbit, skin it and cook it. He was definitely in charge of that department.

Me? I was a pretty darn good procrastinator even then. I didn’t do much until a few nights before. I knew I was not properly equipped but I didn’t even think of asking to go shopping to outfit myself properly especially for what was most certainly to be a one weekend thing. Back then I had one winter coat of Sears or Monkey Wards vintage, sweatshirts, one pair of camping shoes with galoshes for waterproofing, a knit cap, long johns, jeans, wool socks, sweatshirts and a pair of heavy gloves. Today, I would go out and spend hundreds of dollars on me or my son for the right North Face or Carthett outerwear consisting of both parka (no longer simply a “winter coat”) and pants, waterproof Goretex boots, base layers, fleece, gloves, scarf and hat all rated for temperatures and wind chills that only happen in Antarctica and parts of Minnesota.

I would have bought a real sleeping bag for spending two nights in the dead of a northern Michigan winter. The sleeping bag I had would be considered a “sleep over” bag today. It was probably rated to about 46o F with no wind chill. As we were packing the night before our big weekend, my mother realized that it was not going to be enough. We added another blanket and she came up with what seemed like a brilliant idea at the time. She took a vinyl shower curtain and created a pre-Goretex layer of sleeping bag, shower curtain, and blanket. The fact that the shower curtain didn’t “breathe”, probably would even keep me warmer. Until now, I never thought of my mother as the conceptual inventor of Goretex. We should should have patented the idea!

We had to carry all our food. We talked about, planned and bought dried meats, powdered soups, instant mashed potatoes, hot chocolate and I cannot remember what else. For breakfast, the guys brought powdered eggs and bacon. My mother suggested that I take oatmeal, premixing it with raisins and brown sugar arguing that all I had to do was boil water and add the mixture. I did not like the idea of oatmeal simply because powdered eggs were something new and exotic. If we were to do this campout today, the choice of heat and eat frozen and packaged foods would have afforded us gourmet choices. Of course, there was the possibility of barbecued rabbit with Tim’s growing expertise in snaring.
We went up to the farm on a Friday. We had permission to miss school, which in itself was a big deal. The drive up was uneventful. All I remember is that the truck of Mr. Lackie’s car was loaded with all our gear. I remember being ready to get out of car and hit the trail. As a result, I was overdressed in the car and had to shed a layer or four just to be comfortable.

We arrived at the farm mid-afternoon. We were to carry everything we needed in the woods, find a suitable campsite, and prepare ourselves for the cold night. We were a bit rag tag because we had on our backpacks but our arms were full of other suitcases or bags containing all the gear we were taking. I wish we had a picture because I know I looked comical. But, we were young and in retrospect I am sure we did not walk all that far with our backpacks, suitcases and bundles. Yet, it seemed like we walked miles through the cold and snow.

We found a campsite, probably in a place Brad and his Dad already had in mind. The first order of business was to pitch our tent and get a fire going. We had to hurry because, being winter, it would get dark very quickly. We gathered some wood, I had brought along a bag of shavings from shop class for kindling and we soon had a campfire going. We pitched the tent and laid out our bedding.

The next order of business was dinner. I do not remember what we ate that evening. I remember that it was dark, cold, not particularly comfortable, and the campfire was starting to look pretty small and inadequate. But, we were there, three good friends together, surviving.
We decided to go to bed simply because it was dark, cold and there was not much else to do. We did not have air mattresses or cots; it soon became clear to me that the ground was hard and cold. I realized that I did not have enough insulation by a long measure. The fire died out quickly. I just tried to sleep. The shower curtain, which seemed like such a good idea, crinkled and cracked with every toss and turn on the hard cold ground. I had only taken off my coat and boots and I was still freezing. We were certainly roughing it.

Somewhere in the middle of that first night, horror of horrors, I had to go. Not only did I have to pee, which would not have been so bad, but I had to do it all. Arghh. This meant that I had to get up, find my flashlight, toilet paper, a suitable spot and do my bare bottomed duty. As darkness had come on us so quickly, I was not real organized for this eventuality. I fumbled for my boots. Somehow I found the toilet paper. I could not find my flashlight. I had it earlier but it chose to roll or hide in some nook or cranny in our tent. With the campfire long dead, I was forced to grope around for it, without waking my buddies who somehow were blissfully asleep. The call of nature, probably due to the cold, became more urgent than the need for light. So, I had to go. It was pitch black, a moonless, starless night. I went out of our tent, and edged away gingerly in order not to trip. Not being able to see, I had to guess that I was far enough away from the campsite. I did what I had to do and got back to my crinkly, crumbling shower curtain sleeping bag as fast as I could. The rest of the night was uneventful, just cold.

With dawn, I got up. I was up first. Moving around and trying to start up the fire had to be warmer than lying on the frozen ground. When I went to build the fire, I noticed that I had done my duty right there on the campfire ashes. I started laughing and thinking that I had chosen the only spot that was probably just a teeny bit warmer. I theorized that I had a heat seeking butt. I removed the frozen evidence and got the fire going again. This is the kind of stuff you never hear about from the pioneers.

I realized my mother’s genius again that morning. While the shower curtain, poor man’s Goretex, lining in the sleeping bag was more brittle and crinkly than warm, the oatmeal hit the spot. It was easy to make, very filling, and unbelievably warming. I immediately felt like a new person. The cold and ache left my bones.

Breakfast helped us all get warm and fueled for the day. It looked to be a glorious day at that. It was a cold, crisp, blue skied, sunny winter day. We talked and decided that we had one order of business, simply to prepare for and to make that second night warmer and more comfortable then the first. We were taking the survival part of Mr. Lackie’s vision seriously. We were experiencing the Maslow Hierarchy of needs in the school of the very cold real world. We were stuck in the bottom level of food and shelter. We had enough food and were well fed, so shelter was our immediate and next concern.

We gathered wood intent on having a great fire that would last all night. We gathered more wood; in case we needed the fire looked like it wasn’t going to make it through the night. This was the easy enough. We were in the woods and there were plenty of dry branches and logs.
Tim set up his snares. He had really prepared well for this having prepared the ropes and sticks like an experienced Huron or Wyandotte. He brought carrots for bait. He was ready to dress, cook and eat whatever he caught. We were all excited to see if he could actually catch something, though I was less excited about the parts that came after catching something.

Next we gave our attention to making our sleeping quarters significantly warmer and more comfortable. We decided first to transform the tent into a lean to with the open end facing our great fire. That would take care of the staying warm goal. Next, we needed to do something about getting ourselves either off or better insulated from the cold ground. We brainstormed a bit about making a bed out of leaves and moss. As we were each contemplating the lameness of leaves and moss, Brad came up with a great idea. He spent summers at this farm and knew where there was a significant number of bales of hay. Hey! Hay! Hey! What a great idea. A bale of hay would certainly do the trick.

We hiked over to the neighboring farm. Sure enough, there was a large stack of bales. Upon knocking and realizing that no one was home, we did a very un-Boy Scout thing and just took one. It was a comedy hiking back to our campsite with this bale of hay through the snow, deep at times, over rocks, logs, whatever else was in our path. It was a big bale. It was not the weight so much as the bulky hard to manage size of the thing. Two had to carry it, making walking awkward at best. I have no idea how far it was from our campsite to the neighbors place but it was certainly shorter going than returning.

We laughed, stumbled and shared the load. I clearly remember thinking this was going to be one of those moments I would never forget, sitting, resting and talking midway in our lugging this bale of hay. We were acclimated to the cold, we were energized and warm from the walking and toting. The sky was blue, the air fresh and the sun radiant. Here we were three great buddies, in a great setting doing a most cool and fun thing, unencumbered by the details and concerns adult life would foist on us in a few short years. We were young, hearty, and hale (in Hale!) having the time of our lives. It was indeed a great moment.

We eventually made it back to our campsite with the bale of hay intact. We set to prepare for the evening. We broke up the bale and spread it out in our lean to. It had to be 10 inches thick. We put a tarp over it and folded the tarp under on the side that faced the fire. We did not want an errant spark from the fire to make ignite the hay and make us extremely warm. We laid out our sleeping bags and blankets on top.

We got the fire going and began preparing dinner. Tim checked the snares which were empty so there was to be no rabbit for dinner. I believe we did baked beans and hotdogs grilled on sticks. It was warm, the food tasty, and the conversation and camaraderie exceptional.
I never slept so well as that night. Our bed was soft and well insulated. The fire roared and kept us toasty all night. There could not have been a greater contrast between our first and second night.

Memory being suspect, I e-mailed a draft of this letter to Tim who remembered our lean to as follows:

I remember that our lean to was more like a Hilton than a Motel 6. We worked so hard that I remember starting out with deer hunting like outer ware, and getting down to just a shirt. I remember three large logs on the rear of the lean to and tall sides, lots of hay and one of my best nights sleep ever. It seemed that the hay was so deep that it almost took away the definition of the word "survival." My only fear was that we would burn to death.
He also reflected on the quest to snare a rabbit:

You may remember that the first night it snowed a few inches, and a rabbit ran about 30 feet from my box trap. The next night we moved it closer, the rabbit ran past the trap about 10 feet. It came back to the trap, but I didn't touch the carrot that had become frozen, so the rabbit walked up to the trap and left. That barbequed rabbit got away. My father helped me build that trap. It was one of my fond memories. Mr. Lackie did say that we could have turned it in for some ground beef. I would have been more excited to have caught the rabbit and shown it to him rather that eating it.
Over breakfast the next day, we lamented that we could not stay a few more days now that we had such a sweet setup. But school beckoned. We broke camp and hiked back to the house where Mr. Lackie was waiting. We loaded the gear in the car and drove home. We were happy and proud. Mr. Lackie had a great idea and we were glad to be the first in the Troop to experience the Winter Survival.

At the next court of honor, we were given our patch which we proudly sewed on our right breast pocket of our uniforms. Unfortunately, I believe we were the first and only scouts in Troop 223 to get this experience. The demographics of Detroit were changing and in 1968 our neighborhood was on the edge of that transition. With the riots of 1967, “white flight” to the suburbs began in earnest.

In the next two years, everyone moved out, scattered to the various suburbs. It was sad and really horrible timing. Tim, Brad and I were just about to enter high school. Our local high school, Cooley, was a magnificent facility with a great reputation. It was becoming dangerous and full of racial tension. Parents did not want to send their children there so if they could they moved. Most could. This, of course, hastened the transition. The truly sad part, taking economics, race, prejudice, social injustices, and whatever out of the picture was the effect it had on people exactly my age. We were just getting ready to enter high school with friends we have been in school and scouts with since kindergarten. We all ended up spread out among the suburbs of Detroit and really lost contact with each other.

In retrospect, the Winter Survival Campout was our greatest and one of our last times together. We did not know it at the time. I checked via internet, sadly there is no longer a Troop 223 in the Detroit Area Council of the Boy Scouts. I do not know if the Troop merged with another or simply folded. I am guessing the latter.

Tim has been good at keeping in touch. He and I have exchanged e-mails and Christmas cards. He has kept in touch with Brad. Tim is on the mailing list of this e-letter. Brad does not have e-mail but I will mail him a copy. When I talked to Brad last year, I learned he was a police officer in West Bloomfield, MI. I also sadly learned that Mr. Lackie had been killed in a traffic accident a few years ago. I would have liked to thank him today for his dedication and leadership to Troop 223 and for the great idea that created so many memories and truly was a rite of passage and inflection point for the three of us.

Whenever it is really, truly, a cold blustery winter day, I think back to our Winter Survival Campout and feel warmer and ready to brave the elements.

As Tim wrote to me, “It was the best of times - the best of friends - a story to be told over and over to friends and children.” I am happy I was able to relate it here for all of you.

The Photo: Troop 223, I believe the day of Tim’s Eagle Court of Honor. Tim is the tallest scout. Brad is just left of him and I am to the right. I think this is the last time we were together as Scouts in uniform.

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