Do your Scouts get cold feet when it comes to winter camping? This Northern Tier training course helps leaders heat up winter fun.
SCRUNCH. SCRUNCH. SCRUNCH. A birch-lined trail echoes with footsteps and labored breathing. It’s mid-morning in northern Minnesota, and a rising sun softens the frozen ground with the help of unseasonably warm 25-degree temperatures.
Instead of walking with ease, hikers slip and slide with each step on the buttery surface of snow.
A group of seven teenage Scouts walks in sync, towing gear-heavy sleds like elongated shadows. The boys don matching, all-white Anorak-style jackets over layers of fleece. And despite his overbundled appearance, Nate Meier matter-of-factly states, “We look awesomely warm!” The waterproof jackets keep the teens dry as they lob wet snowballs at one another during the mile-long trek.
Just around a corner of the path, the hikers come to a halt as other adults negotiate a dip in the trail. Meagan Pickens, a volunteer from West Virginia, cautiously makes her way down the descent, and her sled—which she pulls with a rope and waist belt — careens past her and flips upside-down. “This thing is like walking an untrained bullmastiff!” she exclaims as she turns the sled over and continues on, her mukluk-style boots slushing in the soft snow. Despite the crash, her gear remains enveloped in a tarp that’s tightly crisscrossed by ropes.
How to tie this sturdy web of netting is just one of many new techniques picked up just days earlier during Northern Tier’s Okpik Cold Weather Leader Training — a course developed by the BSA “godfather” of winter camping, Sandy Bridges, former director of the base. The goal? Arm the 16 participants with cold-weather training so they can ignite their Scouts’ passions for fourth-season camping.
But first — before they head home — the participants must put their new knowledge to the test by spending three days outside during early January, Minnesota’s coldest time of year.
Back on the trail, the use of a sled to carry gear is a tip Bridges picked up during extensive research trips to Scandinavia, Alaska, and Canada. This method of hauling equipment keeps the gear off a hiker’s back, preventing sweat from soaking through a person’s clothing and quickly freezing in cold temperatures. In the late ’70s, Bridges went so far as to make his own sleds (with his father-in-law’s help) for Scouts to use in the Okpik program.
Even today, the teenage hikers tow these handmade yellow contraptions behind them on their way down the trail. Just as the boys begin to get restless, the single track opens in a wide yawn. At its throat, a white abyss glimmers in the distance, its flat surface enveloped by snow. Beneath the layer of white? Flash Lake. Hiker-sled teams cautiously spread out across the surface, listening closely as if the lake might crack open. But the freezing temperatures have cured the top into a foot-thick skin of durable ice.
With the frozen lake as their new home, the campers get ready to test their classroom knowledge in a cold — albeit fun — reality.
WHEN THE TEMPERATURE PLUMMETS, most people board up their camping gear and hibernate. Not many people face the cold with a smile and cheer, heading out the door as soon as the mercury limbos beneath the freezing line. Jim Varcho (above, left), 67, does exactly that. His wind-whipped face stretches into a wide smile when you ask him a simple question during the early days of January: “How’s the weather?”
In usually whitewashed Minnesota, Varcho explains that snow is scarce this season. And, what’s worse — in his eyes — the temperature hovers in the mid- to upper-20s. “It’s warm this year,” he says as he preps his gear the night before the group travels to Flash Lake. “ I think I’m going to have to leave my goose-down sleeping bag behind. We’ll adapt.”
Varcho, a Scouting dad from Iowa with several (now-adult) Scout sons, isn’t alone in his excitement for spending time in the cold. Joining the 16 Scouts and Scouters at the Okpik training, he’s racked up 21 visits to the base. In fact, he’s such a regular that Northern Tier made him a staff member. As an “interpreter” on this training trip, Varcho’s in charge of teaching a group of Scouts and leaders from Kansas as they learn the chilly nuances of winter camping.
Fourth-season camping isn’t like grab-and-go spring or summer outings, when you can shake off a shivering, sleepless night after forgetting an extra sleeping layer. “Winter camping is cerebral camping,” explains Mark Kelly, associate director of programming at Northern Tier. Speaking to the group during one of several indoor training sessions housed in the Ludlow Lodge, a few feet from the base’s iconic (and now frozen) Moose Lake, Kelly adds: “It’s a thinking-man’s camping. There are repercussions for your actions—whether it’s something you do or something you forgot at home.
“If you’re comfortable outdoors when it’s negative 20 degrees, well then you’re prepared for pretty much anything in life,” he tells the room with a serious nod of his chin.
And then Kelly smiles. He looks to Varcho, who stands and says, “It’s a dog’s life, really. When’s the last time you got a lotta sleep and ate a whole lotta food during a campout?” he laughs. “That’s what winter camping is about: You go places and see things that others miss out on ’cause they’re busy staying inside keeping warm.”
Yet this group doesn’t need to be sold on staying out in the freezing temperatures. Dressed in layers of fleece and topped with wool hats, the adults and teens sit hungry for knowledge. Here, they’ll learn Arctic-approved skills in the harsh Minnesota landscape, but they’ll also pick up on a bigger lesson passed down from generation to generation of Northern Tier-trained cold-weather campers: a positive attitude for icy adventures.
BACK ON THE ICE, growling stomachs remind the pink-cheeked hikers that in cold conditions like today — especially during exercise — the human body burns up a great deal of fuel, requiring upward of 4,000 calories to keep going. This means it’s time for Northern Tier’s infamous on-the-go lunch specialty: Hudson Bay bread. (Make your own Hudson Bay bread using this recipe.) This inch-thick, nutrient-filled granola square satiates the team — especially when they slather it with jelly or peanut butter.
And, after lunch is consumed, it’s time to work up some heat again. While it seems puzzling that the group would choose an icy surface for their base, camping on frozen lakes is preferred because the temperature of the ice remains 32 degrees — an important fact when the temperature of the air (and ground) can dip far below zero, making camping on land significantly colder. Plus, a campsite on a frozen lake easily meets Leave No Trace goals because evidence of an overnight stay (including footprints, snow-shelters and more) melts away when the mercury rises.
To help reduce the weight of the group on the ice, the Okpik crew — throwing on an extra layer of clothing — splits into two separate camps a quarter-mile apart. The first challenge of the day is building snow shelters for tonight’s slumber under the stars.
Over at “Camp Kansas” — home to seven Midwestern Life Scouts, their three leaders, Varcho, and an additional Okpik guide — Polar Domes are the shelter of choice. These structures, which appear similar to an igloo, require nearly two hours of shoveling and carving snow.
Digging, shoveling, lifting, scooping — the Scouts quickly work up a sweat. Layers of clothing lie discarded on the sleds. The group wrestles with a Polar Dome tarp that helps shape the mound of snow into a tidy arch. Suddenly, one flap of the tarp falls open, splashing snow back onto the ice. “Well, they didn’t show that in the video,” says leader Dean Meier, recalling the ease with which their training video demonstrated the Polar Dome construction. In real life, it proves tougher than they anticipated.
Stan Mitchell, the assistant Scoutmaster of Troop 225, looks over from the second Polar Dome. His son’s energy appears drained, and Mitchell asks, “How much have you had to drink?” Drew Mitchell, 17, replies, “Not much.” He heads over and grabs a foam-covered (and frost-proofed) Nalgene and sips water. Just as important as food, water jump-starts digestion and is essential to maintaining your body’s warmth.
At the adults-only camp—home to leaders jotting down notes for their own council programs—several people build simple wind-break structures, or trenches in the snow that keep campers blocked from the night’s icy breeze.
Adam Reitelbach, an Eagle Scout and unit commissioner from Virginia, opts to repair an already-standing quinzee (a hollow-domed shelter, similar to a Polar Dome) built by an earlier group. Another Eagle Scout leader, Bob Day from Connecticut, constructs his own lean-to survival shelter complete with foil-blanket-lined walls erected from dead tree limbs and duct tape—an “experiment” to see whether it’s a structure his own Scouts might like to attempt back at home.
Once they finish building, several campers grab cross-country skis and head out for a loop around the lake. Others opt to drill holes in the ice to help collect needed drinking water. Before the sun begins to wane, the Northern Tier dog-sled team visits Flash Lake to let the Okpik group go for individual dog-sled rides. The tiring afternoon of activities keeps the campers’ core temperatures in a comfortable zone — even though the air is still in the mid-20s.
Lots of movement may keep a person warm, but it also makes a person hungry. (Varcho was right about living a dog’s life on the ice.) Before they know it, darkness settles on the lake, and it’s time for dinner. Cooking areas are carved into snow piles at each camp, where the groups use large, liquid-fuel stoves to heat water for a pasta-based meal topped with crunched-up Doritos for an extra boost of calories. (It’s better than it sounds.)
Recalling the day’s events during dinner only helps eyelids fall. With full bellies — and Orion’s belt overhead — it’s finally time for bed.
THE NEXT MORNING, an orange-red sunrise paints a blinding flare of color across the horizon. At 6 a.m., the frozen layer of ice atop Flash Lake groans. A camp robber eyes the kitchen area, looking for any droppings from last night’s dinner.
Shane Miller, a Scouter from West Virginia, sits up in his sleeping bag and looks over the low snow-pile walls of his windbreak — a rectangular shelter that looks a little like a shallow grave. He spent the night under the stars amid frosty 18-degree air. “That’s probably the best sleep I’ve had on a campout in a long time,” he shares. “I was sure that I’d be cold — and I did wake up once to reconfigure my sleeping bag — but besides that it was fine.”
To create a warm night’s sleep, Miller slept atop a tarp and within a fleece liner and a thick down-alternative sleeping bag (down has a tendency to crush beneath a sleeping person’s weight, inadequately trapping warm air). He also wore a wool stocking cap on his head and wool socks on his feet. “I thought maybe it would be either extremes, hot or cold, because it seemed like a lot of stuff to wear. But everything was breathable, and it didn’t get too hot either.” Of course, exhaustion encourages deep sleep. “I was worn out!” he, says, laughing.
At the second camp — home to the unit from Kansas — several boys emerge from Polar Domes and a wind-break structure. On the other side of their camp, snoring echoes from a white Polar Dome that houses the three adult leaders. Once the boys are up, Varcho —who slept in his own ultralight, teepee-style tent — shows them how to get the stove going. He tells the boys how to heat packets of applesauce in the boiling water, handing the steaming packs out to the teens’ mittened hands.
“What’s this?” several inquire.
“Keep it in your hands to help you warm up,” he says, nodding at the packet of applesauce—an edible hand-warmer. “And when you’re hungry and you think it’s cooled to the right temperature, eat it up!” Little tricks like these are secrets Varcho’s been gathering for years. “The morning is probably the hardest time for new campers. It’s tough to get your body heated up. These help.”
Whether he’s thanking the boys for their hard work or encouraging them to help get breakfast going, Varcho models Northern Tier’s signature leadership quality: a positive attitude. Adults may view cold-weather camping as another challenge or accomplishment, but for youth the extreme weather can be intimidating. Varcho’s tireless energy is a trait he says he learned from his own Scout leaders and Bridges himself, Okpik’s creator. “A good attitude will keep you thinking ahead and planning how you’re going to stay warm and safe,” he says.
The Okpik program is built to safely test their capabilities — leaders and Scouts. Today’s challenge includes a four-mile hike to Ennis Lake, a journey that will take them all day. The crew must hike in thick snow along rolling terrain — some using trekking poles and snowshoes — with small daypacks and a sled to carry their water and food.
Along the way, the leaders chat about the knowledge they’ve picked up during the last four days of training. “I’m surprised at how much we’ve learned about making things on the cheap—like water-bottle liners with pipe insulation or the felt mukluk [boot] liners,” Miller says. “We have a rural council, so accessibility like this is key.” Upon returning home, Miller and Pickens, who’ve traveled together on a winter-camping “research” trip, aim to revive the fourth-season program in their West Virginia council.
Several slow-moving hours stumble by as the hikers walk single-file along a rock-and-snow trail, passing hundreds of birch trees and aromatic spearmint ground covering. The vibrant green Minnesota beauty appears shadowed by a gray sky that reflects the group’s mood.
As if waiting for his cue, Varcho chimes in with a favorite story — a tale he’s told so many times he’s perfected his comedic timing. We can’t do it justice here, but Steve Gleasman, a Scouter from northern Illinois who’s attending his ninth Okpik training this year, bellows with laughter at the punch line. “That’s probably the fourth time I’ve heard that Bald Eagle joke, and I laugh every time. I learn something new here every year,” he explains, “but Jim’s the reason why I keep coming back.”
And Varcho will keep coming back to “help carry on what was so important to Sandy” — helping Scouts succeed in a snow-blanketed wilderness, a task that may seem impossible to some. After three challenging days in the shivering-cold air, the group leaves Northern Tier armed with knowledge and Varcho-inspired positivity—ready to bring Scouts into the winter air with confidence.
GRETCHEN SPARLING is Scouting magazine’s Associate Editor.
How do you make winter camping more accessible (and enticing) for Scouts? Share your strategies with other Scouters in the comments below.