Snowshoeing at Afton

dogs on the campfireI can still smell the campfire smoke and stinky socks from our first overnighter of 2011, a quick trip to Afton State Park, on the St. Croix River, about 30 miles from the Twin Cities. Though not as campy or gritty as our last campout, the state parks have a couple of attractions to offer in the winter: heated cabins and snowshoe rentals.

Compared to a tent in the bushes the cabin was luxurious, with heat, electricity, a porch, fire pit, and picnic table. Not to mention a garbage can and coat rack! They’re a bit pricey at $58.50, probably because of the coat rack, but going with friends and splitting the bill made it manageable. For a bundle of firewood, snowshoe rentals, and three meals for 5 people the total came to about $110, and we ate like camping kings (hot dogs, dutch oven cinnamon rolls, cakes with bacon).

hot dog lineup   afton cabin   afton cabin living room   afton cabin bunks

Please excuse the blurry, i.e., artsy, photos, taken with my cell phone. I forgot my camera, along with the ketchup, hence the fast-food condiments seen in the hot dog lineup picture. Even with Heinz the trip couldn’t have been better, unless the kids had gone to bed before 11:15 and/or woken up after 5:15. Despite having burnt the candle, severely, at both ends they tromped through the snow with us for a few hours.

happy snowshoer         happy snowshoers

A successful first attempt at snowshoeing! I’ve posted a few more cell-phone quality pics here: Campouts – 2011

Backcountry Snow Campout

hiking in the snow
Yours truly, posing for a pretended candid shot by the bonfire.

Last week we kicked off the new year with an overnighter in the “wilderness” of central Minnesota – Sand Dunes State Forest. In our three years here I’ve always settled for the state parks, despite the multiple expenses: $16.00 campsite + $8.50 reservation fee + $5 parking. The last straw is paying $10 for two bundles of approved firewood. Contrast the state park with the state forest: $40.00 vs $0.00. No fees, permits, or amenities.

My first attempt at dispersed camping with the kids was a hard-earned success. The main obstacle was finding an entrance and a place to pitch our tent. The DNR offers little help. In fact, they discourage camping outside designated sites. We found a parking lot on the state forest map, but it turned out to be a dirt road which subtly reduced to a trail the further you went. So we opted to park near the highway and hike in.

hiking in the snow
Starting the walk in with kids and sled.

We hiked for about a mile, at about one mile per hour. You can do the math. The kids were tired and whiny. I was relieved to finally find a spot where the snow was cleared down to the dirt. Some trucks and tractors had apparently come through to do a little deforesting, which meant solid ground and ample, free firewood. Ample frozen, free firewood, that is. I had to use my stove like a blow torch to get it going.

Besides finding a spot, the main challenge was keeping a three-year-old and five-year-old warm and happy when there’s not much to do. My daughter was grouchy most the time. She wanted to go home. She wanted her mom. She wanted more fruit snacks. While my son and I cooked and ate dinner, she cried in the tent for an hour.

Still, weather permitting, I’m glad we went. It was a “good experience.” Camping, with its discomforts and unfamiliarities, doesn’t come naturally to kids. They’re used to heating and air conditioning, backup and double-backup menu options, and generally getting what they need/want when they need/want it. Outdoor trips, in their different forms, can approximate the comforts of home. But the unprocessed, organic, backcountry provides the most nutritious outdoor experience. Most importantly, the kids were proud of their accomplishment.

Campout in the Quinzee

Last week my son and I built a snow cave, more precisely a snow hut or quinzee, in a massive snowbank near our apartment building.

digging the snowcave    snowcave

Then, we spent the night in it!

snowcave    inside the snowcave

We had been waiting for a low temperature of at least ten degrees, and Tuesday was the mildest forecast we could find – it never went below fifteen, with most of the night in the twenties. A neighbor had started the entrance to the cave and we finished the excavating in about an hour, with dimensions just large enough to hold our air mattress.

snowcave mattress    snowcave mattress

Our supplies:

  1. A lot of snow – In our case, a parking lot, plowed by a backhoe. The snowbank was at least eight feet tall and maybe twenty wide.
  2. Shovels – We used a regular old digging shovel to break the snow free, and a small flat snow shovel to scoop it out.
  3. Air mattress – You’d think it would be colder than a regular sleeping pad, but the air makes for nice insulation.
  4. Sleeping bags – My son was in a Kelty Mistral zero degree adult bag, with synthetic fill. To keep him from squirming out (a problem on our last campout) I cinched the drawstrings around his neck and head. And to keep his toes warm I folded the bottom half up as an extra layer and tied it in place (empty sleeping bag space is cold space). I was in a Lafuma Warm n Light twenty degree down bag.

We both slept like babies, toasty warm from 10:30 PM to 5:30 AM. However, the mattress had deflated slowly through the night, and I woke up feeling more like Benjamin Button. It was a great time – definitely worth the trouble, especially for my son. Every night since he has asked if we can go “camping.”

Some notes:

  1. If it’s your first attempt with a kid, plan the campout close to home so you can abort in an emergency.
  2. Use a snowbank or drift if possible, otherwise budget at least three hours for completion.
  3. Building a quinzee from scratch you’ll want at least a six foot mound – one to two hours of shoveling. Aim for wall and ceiling thickness of at least a foot.
  4. Any ice crystal precipitation will do. All the shoveling, mixing, and tossing will get even the most powdery snow to harden, or sinter, once it’s piled.
  5. Start the entrance downwind, and keep it as small as possible.

Next time we’re trying an igloo.