A Wisconsin Winter Weekend
By Doug Smith
Boy Scouts and Venturers learn the basics of cold-weather camping during a weekend of hiking, cross-country skiing, and sleeping inside snow caves.
ardner Dam Scout Camp in northeastern Wisconsin bustles with activity each summer when Boy Scouts are busy learning outdoor skills, passing merit badge requirements, and kayaking on the Wolf River’s frisky whitewater.
But come winter, the scene at the Bay-Lakes Council camp changes completely. The river is locked in ice, and the rest of the property is blanketed in snow, sometimes lots of snow.
So what’s the camp’s attraction for teens during a February deep freeze? It’s called the Arctic Adventure program, and it’s full of high-energy winter camping activities for Boy Scouts and Venturers.
Nearly two dozen people attended the event last year. It included cross-country skiing, building and sleeping in snow huts, hiking on snow trails, even shooting paintballs at targets with handmade slingshots. Dressed head-to-toe in warm winter gear, the teenagers cooked, ate, and romped outside for hours.
Cold and fun
The smiles on the teens’ faces—despite a frosty night sleeping in snow caves—proved camping can be fun even when temperatures dip near zero.
“They have so much fun, they don’t realize how cold it is,’’ said Ruth Cristiano, a leader of Venturing Crew 9213 in Neenah, Wis.
“This type of winter camping program exposes them to things some have never done,” she said. “Too many kids sit at home playing video games. Here they learn new skills and how to work together.’’
Cristiano is a veteran winter camper. On her first winter camp-out, the mercury dipped to 13 degrees below zero. “I was toasty,’’ she said. But she acknowledged that some Scouts and adults have their doubts about such winter pursuits.
The Scouts, some of whom had attended previous Arctic Adventure camps, agreed.
“I like it all,’’ said Matt Lohr of Troop 925 in Two Rivers, Wis., who was attending his third winter camp.
“He’s either as nuts as we are, or he really does like it,’’ joked Mike Mailand, longtime Scout leader and a winter camping enthusiast who leads the Arctic Adventure program.
Mailand, who has been in Scouting for 38 years, says, “Winter camping is my thing. I’ve been doing it for 23 years. Some people think it’s crazy, but that’s because they haven’t tried it.’’
“You just have to bundle up,’’ added Crew 9213 Venturer Becca Schruender, a first-time Arctic Adventurer. “It’s been a lot of fun.’’
Choosing an arctic adventure
The weekend began with the group working on some indoor projects that they could use later outdoors.
Some made fleece mitts, neck warmers, or water-bottle holders—to keep their water from freezing. Others made soda-can stoves or beef and turkey jerky; and a few made slingshots for the paintball shoot.
Dan Lemmens, a Scoutmaster with Troop 801, Sheboygan, Wis., and a Venturing crew Advisor, patiently showed the campers how to make the soda-can stoves and candle lanterns.
“What’s cool is tomorrow they’ll use all of this,’’ he said with a smile.
The 17 adventurers—a mix of Venturers, Boy Scouts, and one Girl Scout—decided which activities they wanted to do over the two days: Cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or winter camping.
“They choose their level of adventure,’’ Mailand said. “A lot have never been on skis or snowshoes.’’
Half the group chose to sleep outside one night, which meant they had to first build a “quinzee’’ or snow cave for shelter. Their task was made more difficult because the woods were covered by only a skimpy six inches of sugary, granular snow, rather than the usual several feet of hardpacked moist snow.
A big mound of snow
The teenagers first shoveled snow into large piles about five feet tall. Then Mailand told the group to tap in 18-inch sticks all over the pile’s exterior. Later, when the snow caves are hollowed out, the sticks indicate the proper thickness for the walls and ceiling. If too much snow is carved away, the quinzee could collapse, forcing the Scouts to start over.
The mounds were then left for several hours to harden in the freezing temperatures. When the Scouts returned, they began digging out the interiors.
“If you see light, stop digging,’’ Matt Lohr warned partner Josh Mahuna, also of Troop 925, who was hollowing out their shelter. “It will be tight, but I think we’ll fit,’’ Matt concluded when they were finished.
Kevin Corkin of Troop 1563 in Green Bay, Wis., and Terry Ambrosius of Troop 117 in Seymour, Wis., built their quinzee slowly. Both knew what they were doing: They had been at the camp two weeks earlier at the council’s first Arctic Adventure session, when the temperature dipped to minus 20 degrees below zero.
“It’s actually pretty warm inside of them,’’ Kevin said. “The snow works as an insulator."
To make it even warmer, the Scouts stuffed clothes, packs, or a sled in front of their snow cave’s opening to keep out the wind.
Said Terry: “This is actually better than summer camping because [there are] no mosquitoes. And it’s not so hot.’’
When the boys finished building their shelter, the quinzee was so small inside that they couldn’t sit up, so they had to be careful not to knock snow from the ceiling. Like others, they put a plastic tarp on the ground to keep their sleeping bags dry. Then they rolled out foam pads and their bags.
With their four quinzees complete, the Scouts hiked back to the camp’s lodge for dinner and a movie before returning for bed under a winter sky sparkling with stars. Their candle lanterns, set nearby, glowed in the darkness. Steam blew from their mouths as the temperature dipped to near zero.
The teens climbed into their quinzees, then into their cold sleeping bags. Inside, the snow huts were almost eerily silent, insulated by the snow from outside noises.
An experience to remember
The next morning broke crisp and clear. Under an azure sky, the sun shone through the bare trees, signaling it was time to get up. Mailand, who slept in a one-person tent nearby, rousted the group awake at 7:30 a.m.
So how’d they do?
“My feet got cold, and the snow fell on me when I moved,’’ said Josh, a first-time winter camper, with a smile. “But it was cool. I’d do it again.’’
“I stayed warm,’’ Matt said. “I put my jacket over my feet.’’
“I was nice and warm, so I slept well,’’ said Austin Mleziva of Troop 925, who slept with two other Scouts in the largest quinzee.
Said Matt Mahuna, also of Troop 925: “I slept in the middle, so I was toasty. I also had two sleeping bags.’’ It was his first time sleeping in a quinzee.
“This is something you can go home and brag about,’’ said Mailand as the crew gathered for breakfast in a large cook tent heated with a wood stove. “Not a lot of people will do this.’’
The group sipped hot chocolate and ate individual omelets they had assembled the night before in plastic sandwich bags to be cooked in boiling water on a camp stove.
Skiing and hiking
The lack of snow meant that Scouts hiked instead of snowshoed. But there was enough snow for cross-country skiing. A half-dozen Scouts were outfitted with ski gear at a nearby ski shop, then took off down the maze of trails nearby that wound through the pine-studded woods. Cristiano offered them pointers.
Most of the teens had little or no experience on cross-country skis. So there were spills and smiles aplenty.
Robert Zachara of Troop 7 in Maple Park, Ill., fell on a flat stretch, got up, skied a few dozen yards, and fell again in a heap of skis and poles.
“It’s more difficult than I thought,’’ he said, smiling. “But I’m actually enjoying this.’’
Cameron LeBlanc, also of Troop 7, eagerly eyed a small hill just ahead, then swooped up and over it. Midway down the other side he lost his balance, his skis went askew, and he crashed.
“Well, that was fun!’’ he exclaimed.
But the more the Scouts and Venturers skied, the better they got, and soon they easily traversed a trail back to camp.
“I fell uncountable times,’’ Cameron reported with pride.
Food gets rave reviews
Skiing, hiking, sledding, and quinzee-building work up appetites, so food was a high priority at the Gardner Dam Camp’s Arctic Adventure.
For breakfast Saturday: MBO—mysterious baked object—(as one leader called it) contained scrambled eggs, potatoes, cheese, onions, and peppers. Salsa and meat patties were optional.
After breakfast, the Scouts assembled individual bags of trail mix—peanuts, dried cranberries, M&M’s, raisins, animal crackers, and other assorted goodies—for snacking during the day.
Then they each prepared a foil dinner for lunch from a selection of hamburger, mixed vegetables, sliced potatoes, spices, and condiments. After a morning of outdoor fun, the dinners were placed on red-hot coals on a grill near the winter camping area, and once they were deemed ready, quickly devoured.
Dinner back at the lodge was piping hot chicken Alfredo, salad, and toasted garlic bread. Before calling it a day, the group prepared their omelets-in-a-bag for Sunday morning breakfast outside.
The Scouts gave the food two thumbs-up. “I’d rate it a 9.5 out of 10,’’ said Matt Lohr.
As the campers packed up and prepared to head home after a weekend of winter fun, several said they planned to return. Some who had chosen not to winter camp vowed to take that challenge on their next visit.
“Did you have a good time?’’ Mailand asked the group.
“Yeah!’’ they responded in unison.
Doug Smith is an outdoors writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
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