ScoutingJanuary-February 1999

At Home in the Snow

By Bob Cary

The BSA's Northern Tier National High Adventure programs teach Scouts how to meet the challenges of winter camping.

"Come on, guys, start shoveling. A snow dome won't build itself!"

Shoulder to shoulder, First Class Scouts Rashaan Goodwin, Sam Ginnis, and Paul Pronger hurled shovels full of snow into a 10-foot circle bound by eight gray, plastic panels. Marching counterclockwise, just inside the circle, were Scouts Vang Lor, Ray Andre Torrance, and Stephen Cannon, "snow stomping" to create what would become the walls for their overnight shelter.

It was Valentine's Day, Feb. 14, 1998; but far from civilization's gentle celebration of romance, these Scouts from Troop 195 in Minneapolis were enjoying the challenge of living under snow in the dead of winter.

Called Okpik (OOK-pik), the Eskimo term for the hardy snowy owl, the snow camping program has become a state-of-the-art feature of the BSA's Northern Tier High Adventure Base, 22 miles northeast of Ely, Minn.

Still, it was a quantum leap for members of Troop 195 from the din and neon of inner-city life to the utter silence of snow-blanketed Blackstone Lake. Shovel by shovel, the snow shelter materialized under the practiced eyes of members of the base's veteran winter camp staff, all of whom have logged many days of camping under all winter conditions.

Also assisting at the camp-out were assistant Scoutmasters Devin and Taisa Diedrich, from Minneapolis; and, from Savage, Minn., Paul Cousineau, coordinator of urban Scouting programs for Minnesota's Viking Council, and wife, Denise, an active Scouter, who together serve 51 urban units involving 1,400 youngsters.

With his blue, knit voyageur's cap and gray beard, Paul ably projected the image of the French frontiersman of history. In his sixth season of snow camping, he swelled with pride as he watched streetwise inner-city kids adapt quickly to wilderness life.

"Okpik gives these kids a whole new life experience," he related, brushing flakes of fresh snow from his collar.

Veterans disdain snow shelters

Little more than a mile away, on Secret Lake, eight Explorers and two adult leaders from Post [now Venturing Crew] 579, Osseo, Minn., had their camp set up. Some of them, veterans of several Okpik outings, disdained snow shelters and simply pitched their sleeping bags under the stars.

"My wife and I had an invitation to spend this weekend at Palm Desert, Calif.," noted adult leader Jon Pederson. "But we would rather be camping in snow than sitting under palm trees."

He compared the day's 25-degree weather with a trek two years earlier when the post camped in 50-below-zero temperatures. "Now that was a real winter," he said, laughing.

Jon's wife, Sophie, an accomplished backpacker and skier, noted that Post 579 has a year-round high adventure program and would be sailing across Lake Huron and up Georgian Bay the coming summer. Okpik, she added, was not only excellent training for cold-weather survival but a test of character for the five women and seven young men on this trip.

Several miles to the east, three other Scout units hiked, skied, and snowshoed the Flash Lake Trail beneath pines and spruce. One group, guided by Brian Buhl, camped in "thermal shelters" made of bough lean-tos banked with snow. Two other units set up snow domes on Flash Lake under the tutelage of guides Eric Brewton and Chris Breen.

A weekend in the snow

In all, 44 Scouts and adult leaders from the Viking Council plus two from Wisconsin's Bay Lakes Council had arrived at the Northern Tier base the previous evening. They were assigned warm cabins for the first night (although some opted to sleep out), ate supper, and attended winter orientation sessions.

The next morning, after a hot breakfast, they were issued any needed winter clothing by base staff members who checked each Scout for proper Arctic footgear, mittens, and parkas. Warm sleeping systems were added where required.

Camping equipment and food were next loaded on two-man fiberglass sleds patterned after Native American ahkios, preferred for moving heavy loads through snow; then the group split into five units and pushed off into the forest.

The fascination of building snow domes and living comfortably inside was matched by the simplicity of food preparation. To avoid dishwashing chores - painfully difficult in sub-zero weather - each Scout was issued an MRE, military surplus "Meal Ready to Eat" in a plastic pouch.

Snow, melted in a stainless steel pot over the fire, became the hot water which was poured into the pouch and reconstituted the dried ingredients into tasty chili and macaroni. Drink mix added to hot water provided a steaming beverage to go with crackers, pound cake, and granola bars.

Trail lunch was a slab of nutritious Hudson Bay Bread, like an oversize oatmeal cookie spread thick with peanut butter, sloshed down with a hot drink. Breakfast saw cereal and apple cider created with hot water, and an energy bar added.

Only a cup and a spoon were necessary for each meal, keeping the process simple, sanitary, and soap-free.

On Sunday morning, the units broke camp, packed their sleds, and headed back to the high adventure base, where equipment was checked in and hot showers provided. Following lunch in the base dining room, awards were presented with the colorful Okpik snowy owl patches going to everyone who camped overnight. Coveted Bizhiw Canada lynx patches were awarded to those spending two or more nights in the wilderness.

Among the many impressions the Scouts took home from their Okpik outing, none was more memorable than the distant, eerie howl of a hunting timber wolf pack heard Saturday night. Nothing, they agreed, signified high adventure like those big, gray carnivores whose tracks in the snow and distinct cries symbolize real North American wilderness.

A resident of Ely, Minn., freelance writer Bob Cary is a neighbor to the BSA Northern Tier High Adventure Base.

Two growing programs

Okpik was started in 1974 by the late Clyde (Sandy) Bridges, director of the Northern Tier base for 27 years.

Under general manager Doug Hirdler and director of program Terry Schocke, participation (373 Scouts in 1998) is expected to double in two years. This winter a sled dog program is being added, with professional mushers providing instruction.

Another BSA national cold-weather camping program is Kanik, at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. Crews spend a weekend or longer training in winter camping skills and participating in cross-country skiing, snow shelter building, and other activities.

For more program information, contact:

  • National Cold Weather Camping Development Center, Northern Tier High Adventure, P.O. Box 509, Ely, MN 55731, (218) 365-4811.
  • Philmont Scout Ranch, Attn: Kanik, Rt. 1, Box 35, Cimarron, NM 87714, (505) 376-2281.

How to Build a Comfortable Snowhouse

A key element in the Okpik winter camping program for the past 25 years has been instructing Scouts how to build a comfortable snowhouse adapted from the Indian "quinzee" design. In the last three years, the process has been speeded up by the use of plastic, paneled Polar Dome devices created by Norquest Innovation, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

The Polar Dome Explorer kit, complete with panels, gauging stakes, lines, and zippered door, weighs 11 pounds and has an exterior diameter of 10.5 feet. The only tool needed is a snow shovel.

At the campsite, a rope stretched between two steel stakes is used like a protractor to scribe a circle. Snow from outside the circle is shoveled inside, creating a low mound. The panels are fastened around the rim of the circle and more snow is shoveled inside.

As the shoveling continues, several "snow stompers" climb inside the circle packing the edges, which will become walls. More snow is added, but the middle is deliberately kept soft to make carving out the inside easier. The mounded snow is raised to seven feet, a crown formed on top by patting it solid with shovels. The panels are removed, leaving the snowhouse standing.

The stakes are pushed about a foot deep into the snow to act as gauges, and the inside is carefully carved out, leaving a layer of packed snow for floor insulation. Lastly, the zippered door with a snow-filled plastic frame is added and a large plastic ground cloth laid on the floor. Closed cell foam mats go under the sleeping bags. Tests have shown that even with the thermometer dropping to 40 below outside, the temperature inside the Polar Dome stays near a livable 20 degrees above zero.

Quinzees built from hollowed-out snow piles are seldom symmetrical and take about four hours to build and "set up." Polar Domes take about two hours to complete and are all alike.

  • Information about the Polar Dome is available from Norquest Innovation, (877) 667-7837,

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