Fresh snow had fallen and the mountains were calling my name. I had wanted to get out for a solo camp this winter, but things kept getting in the way. Now was my chance. One of my goals this past year was to do a "Aux Aliments du Pays" camp in every season. I got a late start last Spring, so now was my chance to make up the winter camp. I took no food, just a little salt and pepper.
I chose a spot up Kenosha Pass as it is a relatively close drive and would provide ample snow. Kenosha Pass overlooks the great Bayou Salade, or South Park, on the northeast side. The North Fork of the South Plate also starts here. Many trappers and mountaineers passed through this country, as did John C Fremont. To be honest I didn't have any specific place in mind for camp, I just drove onto the first forest road I could and parked at a convenient place. The elevation here was 10,200ft.
The temperature was around 15F when I started my journey late Saturday morning. I was wearing buckskin trousers, wool wraps around the lower legs to keep snow off, cotton drawers, a cotton check shirt, a blue wool coat, side seam moccasins with a blanket liner, and a wool knitted toque. I also wore a pair of mittens made of white blanket scrap, with an outer buckskin mitten with an "idiot string" that goes around my neck. When travelling it is best to dress so that you are chilly when standing still, as it prevents you from overheating and sweating as you work. I also packed along my buckskin frock coat, as if a bitter cold wind is blowing, it helps a lot.
My gear, including buffalo robe, blankets, frock coat, wool shirt, spare mocs, tin kettle, cup, fire kit, &c. was packed on my 6 foot wooden toboggan. I pack my toboggan by first laying down my oil cloth tarp, then my gear, then folding it up and lashing it to the tie ropes along the bottom of the toboggan. This oilcloth cover keeps the snow off my gear.
I chose to bring along my bearpaw snowshoes as I planned to do some hunting through the pine trees, and they are easier to navigate with. The downfall is they do not provide me with as much floatation so I would sink up to my knees in places, which made for a challenging trek. When going with others it is common to have one person break trail for a while, but when you are alone, there is no one to break trail for you. The bindings I use for snowshoes are a simple wrap using a piece of 6 to 7 foot 3/4" lampwicking.
A fresh blanket of snow covered the landscape and made for beautiful scenery. However the trees had quite a bit of snow on them, and the slightest brush against one, or a breeze coming through, would toppled the snow off onto you. Watching in the distance you could see clouds of snow as the branches dropped their load.
My trek in to camp was about 1/2 mile. I left the road, crossed a crick with beaver ponds, and then headed up the other side into the trees. Not very far by any means, but far enough to get away from the sight and sounds of civilization.
I found a suitable campsite where a tree had fallen and formed a bit of a natural shelter. It was out of the wind, and there was less snow. Using a long branch I knocked all the snow from the branches above camp. I didn't want any unpleasant surprises toppling down on me. When it comes to the winter camping, there's a lot to get done and a lot less daylight to do it in.
I proceeded in stomping all around the camp area, flattening the snow with my snowshoes. From nearby fir and spruce trees I plucked a few boughs here and there and made myself an insulating bed. Then I laid down my oilcloth, tarp, buffalo robe, and 3 blankets. One of the blankets was folded in thirds lengthwise and used to lie upon to provide further insulation. I was not expecting any bad weather other than cold, so did not setup a shelter. I was in a natural shelter as is, and if it decided to snow, I felt I would be protected enough. I would rather use my tarps to wrap around my blankets and hold the heat in.
I gathered firewood pretty easily by toppling over nearby dead standing aspen and pines, 2-4" in diameter. I then wedged them in the fork of a tree and busted them into more manageable 3 foot lengths. I did bring along a hatchet just in case, but I chose to not use it as using a natural tree to break wood takes a lot less energy. Slamming the wood against a tree trunk, stump, or rock works equally as effective.
The area around camp was covered in a system of trails by the time I had gathered pine boughs and firewood.
Using my frying pan I dug the snow out where I wanted my fire pit to be. I piled it up on the side away from my bed to act as a bit of a reflector. It probably didn't do that much, but that was the goal.
Once I had finished getting my campsite prepared, I still had enough daylight so I headed off into the trees in search of game. I had brought along my 20ga smoothbore that my grandfather had built and passed down to me. It is a special gun, and has made a lot of meat for me. I loaded it with 60gr 3f powder, wadding, equal amount of hand made drop shot, and more wadding. I prime with the same horn.
I had heard a squirrel nearby so was heading in that direction to investigate. The snow was much deeper in the trees, and I sank up to my knees even with snowshoes in places. Deep snow makes for hard walking, as each step you must lift a bunch of snow out with your foot. This has the tendency to sometimes cause the binding to slip off my foot and in this case I had lost my shoe in the deep snow. I stopped, stuck the butt of my gun down in one of my snowshoe tracks so it would stand up on its own, but not get snow on the lock. While standing with both feet on one snowshoe, got the other snowshoe out and binding ready. As I was doing this I noticed movement nearby and saw a pine squirrel digging down into its winter cache at the base of a pine tree. I finished getting my shoe on and then took a few steps to get a better shot. I leveled my gun and shot, but I had a bit of a hang fire from snow getting on my lock. I got him anyways.
Normally I carry a small buckskin whang in my shooting pouch to tie small game to when I am carrying it back to camp, but I had either misplaced it or repurposed it for something else. So in order to keep my hands free I tied the squirrel to the fringe on my pant legs.
Hunting squirrels is fun because when you shoot one, usually others will start making a racket and give up their location. This time was no exception; right after I shot this one I heard another start barking in the distance. I started making my way toward the sound but it stopped and I decided I had enough walking through the deep snow. Satisfied that I at least would have something to eat for the night I headed back to camp.
Back at camp I cleaned out the squirrel and lay down to take a rest. Now that I had stopped moving I was starting to cool off. There was still daylight left so I didn't want to get a fire going and use more wood than was necessary. As I lay there I heard a squirrel barking near camp. I jumped up, grabbed my gun, and ran in that direction. I figured if I took the time to put on snowshoes it would stop and I wouldn't know which tree it was in. I sunk into the snow with each step, but made it to the sound and saw a pine squirrel on a branch eating a pinecone. I took aim and fired. After the shot I heard the squirrel scurrying up the tree. What? Did I miss? A few moments later my question was answered as he fell out of the tree and came crashing down through the branches. I was happy I had 2 squirrels, that's almost a meal!
Back to camp I went. When I got there I took the back of my mittens and brushed off all the loose snow. Snow turns to water when it gets hot, and I definitely didn't want to be wet when the temps were going to drop below zero.
I got my fire going just as daylight faded away. Normally I like to find and use available tinder, but I always have a cache in my fire kit just in case. I decided to use that this time. There were a few things in the area that I could've used if I had looked hard enough, such as old mans beard moss that grows on trees, aspen bark, some dry grass that had been exposed by the wind near trees, &c. Once I got my fire going I filled my kettle with snow to begin melting for water. Sure a cup of nice hot coffee or chocolate would be nice, but a drink of hot water still heats you from the inside.
By now the squirrels had frozen solid, so I broke them up into a few pieces and put into my smaller kettle with some water, salt, and pepper and put on the fire to boil. I also put the hearts in, as I eat the heart of every animal I kill.
I continued to stoke the fire and watch it's flames dancing while soaking in the silence. The larger wood I would feed in a little at a time, or burn in half. Smaller branches kept the flame going bright. After a while my supper of squirrel was ready and it wasn't too bad. I drank the broth.
As I started to run low on wood I decided it was getting time for bed. I tucked away my fire kit into my bed just in case it should snow. I took off my cotton shirt, and put on my wool flannel shirt. Then I put my cotton shirt back on over it, and my blue wool coat over that. My blue coat is not so much as capote, as a lighter weight wool melton coat similar to what Alfred Jacob Miller painted in the Trapper's Bride. I then swapped out my moccasins for some larger ones that have room for an additional layer of wool insulation. I warmed my hands and feet one last time, made a little yellow snow, and then climbed into my bedding. When it's cold out I like to sleep with my mittens on. I used my buckskin frock coat as a pillow. I laid there for a little while listening to the hoot of a nearby owl and then drifted off to sleep.
I awoke in the night to a strange snorting noise. Normally I am a heavy sleeper, but I find that when you are doing solo camps you are much more on edge and the slightest noise alerts you. Of course the first thought is always that it's a bear coming to get you. But this time of year they should be hibernating. The noise repeated 2 or 3 more times, each getting closer to camp. It was too dark to see and the sound had stopped so I went back to bed.
I don't know what the temperature was at night, but I am sure it dropped below zero. The weather report was calling for temps of 0 at the nearest town, and I was at a much higher elevation. I do know that anytime my bare skin touched metal, such as my fry pan, it stuck!
When I woke up the sun was starting to come up. It's hard to get out of your warm blankets and into the cold morning air, but it's got to happen. I got up and stretched and proceeded to strike a fire. There were no coals from the night before. I melted more snow for water as I warmed my hands and feet. When I ran out of wood I decided it was time to pack up camp and get on the trail.
As I was loading the toboggan I noticed fresh rabbit tracks just 5yds from camp. Those rascally rabbits... I had seen other tracks, but never saw a rabbit. They must wake up earlier than I do.
As always I put out my fire and cleaned up the campsite. I spread the pine boughs around to look natural, made sure there were no piles of wood, &c. All I left behind was my snowshoe tracks, which will fade with the wind and snow.
On my way out I inspected the meadow to find 2 sets of fresh moose tracks. I could see where they changed course, probably when they winded me. I am sure that is what the noise was that woke me up in the night. The trip out was much easier as I didn't have to break trail, and most of it was downhill.
I enjoyed my time on the ground, even though it was a short trip. It was still a pleasure to strap on the snowshoes and do a little hunting. Solo camps are great because they test your skills. There is no one to rely upon but yourself. Plus they give you a little time away from everything and a chance to reflect on your thoughts. Of course nothing beats a good trail partner or two to help pass the time around the fire.