It's a Winter Romp

By Alan Kesselheim
Photographs By Vince Heptig

Sledding, skiing, broomball, and snowshoeing are just a few of the cold-weather activities that make this annual February weekend a hit with Minnesota and North Dakota Scouts.

At 8:30 on a Saturday morning in February, even before the official activities of the Northern Lights Council's fifth annual Winter Romp were scheduled to begin, 25 boys with inner tubes and colorful plastic sleds vied for position at the top of the sledding hill.

The white surface was fast and full of moguls, the small bumps that frequently caused the speeding tubes and sleds to go airborne as they zoomed toward the bottom, sending hats and mittens (and sometime riders) flying.

Pack 89 Cub Scouts Austin Parenteau and Christian Johnson peek out from a quinzee snow dome.

For these boys, "sleep probably won't be high on the [priority] list this weekend," said Dave Mork, an assistant Webelos den leader from Pack 626, Moorhead, Minn., as he watched from the top of the slope. It was great to see them take to this activity, he said, because a key purpose for the Romp is for the kids to see how cool it is to be outside and that, compared to watching TV or playing video games, "tubing is a blast!"

The annual Winter Romp weekend is part of the December-to-March program at the council's Camp Wilderness, a 2,400-acre facility located near Park Rapids, Minn., an hour east of the council headquarters in Fargo, N.D. The camp is marking its 60th anniversary in 2006.

"We wanted to offer something special during the winter months for packs, troops, and crews," said Brad Olson, council senior camping executive. "We offer a medley of skills and activities, but the most important thing is for Scouts to have a good time in winter conditions."

The program, which can handle about 250 participants, has been a big hit with units from northern Minnesota and eastern North Dakota, Olson noted. "This year we filled to capacity within 90 minutes of opening registration."

Games and skills

"Winter conditions" in this part of the country can mean daytime temperatures around zero that plummet to minus 25 degrees overnight. For the 2005 event, however, the weather was balmy by comparison, with daytime high temperatures in the 30's and 40's, although six inches of snow covered the ground.

As the sun rose above the forest, the day warmed; and the sledders abandoned the hill to attend some of the many scheduled activities throughout the camp.

Groups of campers rotated through various stations, including ice fishing, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, GPS (global positioning satellite) navigation training, and shooting at the rifle range.

In addition to learning specific skills, campers could participate in fun events, like the ever-popular sledding, and games like "ice golf" and broomball.

Jacob Brindley leads Pack 56 on a snowshoe tour through the woods.

Winter Romp had a big fan in 9-year-old Jacob Brindley of Roseau, Minn. "I like the woods and it's fun to be outside even when it's cold," the Webelos Scout said as he made his way down a steep set of steps to the glistening sunlit lake for a round of ice golf, which featured orange golf balls and snow-pit "holes."

On the snow-packed parking lot, teams surged from goal to goal in a spirited game of broomball. (Today a popular recreational team sport, broomball was originally played with real brooms and a slightly deflated volleyball. At Winter Romp, however, players used equipment made specially for the game today, wooden sticks with whisk broom-shaped plastic tips and a weighted ball designed for use on ice or hard snow.)

Winter campers

After lunch (served in the Camp Wilderness Lodge and included in the weekend fee) the campers returned to visiting the activity stations.

John Braastad, Scoutmaster of Troop 59 from Thief River Falls, Minn., conducted the GPS demonstrations.

A wildlife biologist who has brought his troop to Winter Romp for several consecutive years, Braastad uses GPS navigation in his work tracking wildlife. In his demonstration, he showed the Scouts how to use a GPS receiver, then set them off on a treasure hunt, using the devices to home in on hidden "geo-caches."

The Scouts in Troop 59 are experienced winter campers, Braastad noted. "We don't sleep in cabins. We pride ourselves on sleeping out, no matter what the temperature, and cooking our own food. It's part of the challenge we set for ourselves."

During Winter Romp, most units prefer to rent cabins at Camp Wilderness. However, some units, like Troop 59, choose to create their own winter living quarters.

A generous supply of snow is best for making two types of natural shelters: a snow cave (dug out of a deep drift or slope) or a snow dome or quinzee (creating a mound of snow and then hollowing out the interior).

On previous visits, Troop 59 had made such snow shelters. But because the snow cover at Winter Romp 2005 was thin, the troop decided to use an unusual technique—constructing the shelter with cardboard boxes, against which they piled snow for insulation.

Despite the limited supply of snow, another group of veteran winter campers, Troop 472 from Parkers Prairie, Minn., was determined to make traditional snow shelters.

The eight Scouts, ranging from 12 to 17 years in age, succeeded in collecting enough of the white stuff to build two quinzees. After allowing the five-foot-tall mounds to settle for several hours, they inserted 18-inch sticks in the mounds. Then, hollowing out the interiors, they dug until they exposed the ends of the sticks on the inside, ensuring shells of proper thickness. The Scouts then punched several ventilation holes in the domes and brought straw bales to spread on the floor for insulation.

A home in the snow

As the afternoon light waned, Troop 472 Scoutmaster Rick Ackerman sat in a camp chair near the domes, surveying the effort.

"The Winter Romp is a warm-up for our camping season," he said. "We're a pretty adventurous troop. We go on extended camping trips, canoe journeys, backpacking expeditions. It's our badge of honor that we push for big adventures."

Ackerman's son, Evan, was busy applying the final touch to one quinzee, fitting the dome with a two-foot piece of ice cut from the lake to serve as a window.

At breakfast the next morning, the Troop 472 Scouts announced that they had slept warmly in their duo snow shelters. In fact, 12-year-old Logan Hanson reported that he had been so warm, he had been sweating.

"The only problem was that someone slid down the entrance tunnel in their sleep and pushed open the snow-block door, letting in cold air," he added.

Over at the Troop 59 campsite, half a dozen Troop 59 Scouts circled around a campfire eating pancakes. No one seemed the worse for wear after a night spent in their cardboard box winter shelters.

"Some of them were still up until 11 last night, going down the sledding hill," reported Scoutmaster John Braastad. But they don't seem tired, he added. "They want another go at sledding this morning, just for the fun of it."

And both Troop 472 and Troop 59—along with many others who attended winter weekend in 2005— probably will be back for the next Winter Romp.

Freelance writer Alan Kesselheim lives in Bozeman, Mont.

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