I remained in the base camp with moms, kids and a few other single men as a dozen or so of the gaurdians (young, tough, and single type people) embarked on their nomadic wolf tracking camp, pack frames packed with only their sleeping gear, some cabbages, and a deer hide full of congealed bear fat. Over the next six suns I watched as they trickled back into camp: tired, hungry, but ultimately relishing the contrast of cozy camp life and carrying their beds on pack frames through knee-high snow, setting up a new camp every night, and life becoming so much about immediate needs of warmth, hunger, sleep, and movement that small talk ceases to be all that captivating.
The whole time I was telling myself: I’m not all that into Wolf tracking, I’ll be fine here. And I was, for the most part. I even got some new experiences in my own way. But when the trackers returned, something clicked in me when I saw their appreciation for our comfortable lodgings, hearth, and plentiful food, and the chance to rest their wearied bodies. I know that feeling – I love that feeling!
I wanted some too, so what better opportunity than a camping trip with the kids? Ha! None, apparently!
After some initial canvassing 5 children and 6 adults were enlisted. And then, little 3 year old Julia voiced that she would like to come as well (her mother and father would not be coming). There was a bit of hemming and hawwing on our part: winter camping with a 3 year old, without her parents to default to when her needs required patience and presence. But can we really say no to one of our clan with the passion to do and be with us on our adventure? No, we cannot.
After rendering some bear fat the night before and letting it cool to solid-ness, a few members prepared 12 “bear fat bombs” in cabbage leaf-cups, later packed and tied into a spare t-shirt for travel. The kids and adults all loaded up their pack frames with sleeping bags, a deer rug, a couple wool blankets, 5 frozen suckerfish, and a hankie full of dried Basswood leaves. A 13th clan member had already headed out early for a dentist appointment, and would be tracking us to our camping spot with the 3 cabbages he was carrying, in addition to his own sleeping gear.
Last minute – err, nutcrack – mittens had to be found, kids said goodbye to their favorite snack of well-boiled wild rice – and we were off. And then a drink at the water hole and we were off. And then readjusting Julia for a ride on a pack frame and we were off. And then a small break and….okay so travel is touch and go with kids, we remember. Nonetheless, the trek across 2 frozen lakes, through hardwood forest, alder bog, and forest road is enchanting. The warm sun hangs overhead and the weather is downright balmy for what we are used to. Someone mentions its too bad there’s no lens to capture our snowbound flotilla of big ones and little ones carrying all that we need on wooden sticks on our backs. But there are memories, and the now, we remind ourselves.
Little Julia rides on someone’s shoulders for most of the trip, only to be traded for a pack-frame to someone else later on and carried hipside through bog for the final stretch. “Why do many adults carry me,” she asks. I tell her because she’s heavy, and she reassures me: all kids are heavy. Her self-assurance reassures me.
We answer “almost there” a number of times to the age old question. While a couple of stragglers go poop and the rest wait on a hillside, a child notices a piece of snow kicked over the side of the trail roll downhill and grow into a larger and larger cylinder of snow-balledness. An eggroast to a half-mealtime of play ensues. Adults look on, ranging on the continuum of feelings from amazed and glowing at the ease of the children’s inspiration to impatient and grumbling inside about the soreness of our backs.
Almost there becomes there as we arrive in a string of meadows adjacent to an alder bog. Immediately (the sun is getting low) we choose a site for our hearth and kick it (relatively) free of snow, as well as a location for sleeping 13. I show everyone the Ash bog where there is a spring fed stream to drink from. The blackness of the water contrasts beautifully with the snowy bog as we lay on our bellies and rehydrate.
Back towards camp we quickly powwow about boughs and wood. We’re all tired but know we have work to do to feed ourselves and sleep comfortably through the night. Back and forth from the woods around us for the next 2 mealtimes as a pile of Balsam boughs and softwood grow and grow in our new temporary home. As the sun dips really low someone gets out their bow drill kit and pumps a sticks into coals and flame. Someone else begins meticulously setting up the quadruple king-sized bough bed. Everyone finds their role. Someone else breaks up wood and feeds the growing fire as it sinks into the snowey hummock of our hearth. The kids plug in here and there with our encouragement amongst their play and warming themselves by the fire.
We’re all eager to eat and have comfortable beds. We rally a final effort with the bough bed, and negotiate some differences of opinion in bough laying techniques, and we’re…done! Sleeping bags are laid out, some joined together for cosleeping and sharing body heat (something I was eager to try out).
Ah, Dinner! With some seriously-stoked fire, we sit on blankets and boughs and dig into our goodies. Rather than the hectic cafeteria-line we are used to at camp, sharing our meal is simplified to passing that piece of cabbage, or “will you pass me a fish head”, or “I can’t finish all of this bear fat”. We all get thoroughly filled and are looking forward to sleeping. Someone comments on the weather; it seems awfully warm and I wonder if this is a low-pressure system (note: this is foreshadowing). A couple of adults and the youngest children walk in the dark to the creek to get a last sip before bed.
Into the sleeping bags we go. Julia is shuffled into the bag I share with another mother and child, where there is the most room. Stories are told. We laugh and yawn. I’m colder than I’m used to and appreciate the warmth of the little body next to me. I lay my clothing under me to insulate from the cold ground and curl myself up to keep the warmth in.
Some mealtimes pass. Then a pattering begins on the plastic of our sleeping bags. Some murmurs about snow and we all hunker down deeper in our bags, set our footwear and clothing out of harm’s way, and I attempt to continue making my way towards unconsciousness. It does not come.
Louder murmuring along with louder pattering. There is some half-conscious debate about whether this is rain or snow. I summon the courage to peak my head out and decide its hail. I hunker down again, determined to sleep. I’m getting colder and colder now; my cosleeping experiment is teaching me I’m inadequately prepared with not enough boughs and not enough body heat to share in our double bags.
A little later: now there’s something happening. Wet spots, drips, and (I heard) even puddles are forming in some of the bags, including ours. Finally, someone gets up, starts pacing around, and announces they are not getting back in “that sleeping bag”. I realize my strategy of suck-it-up and wait until dawn without sleeping ceases to inspire me. With some groggy reactiveness we debate over what to do. Some want to run to our storage space at the school and retrieve a tarp. Another idea is to escort the children in for their NadMad visit (our remote camp is nearer the school than we usually are) to get them out of the rain. A couple dynamics play out through all of this: one, of projecting the adult’s discomfort on the kids (they were mainly warm but grumpy about snowy hair) and two, of not relating to each other’s different needs. The adults in 2 bag systems (where the outer bag hadn’t soaked through to the inner) were dry and cozy and couldn’t understand why the other adults were antsy and fearful, and vice versa.
Many are uncomfortable with arriving at NadMad before our agreed-upon time with the guides. A compromise is presented that those not on their NadMad visit only do the escorting of the kids to NadMad, and return back to our remote camp to pick up their own bedding along with anyone wanting to stay and sleep it out. So we get up, and get dressed, slowly, in the dark. I stoke the fire up. After some time, everyone has decided to join the trip and get out of bed. We all take pieces of the kids gear and head off into the darkness in a line.
After a short while, it dawns on me that this is enabling. We know we’re supposed to rely on each other, and the resources we have with us instead of falling back on the school’s. I could sense we were blurring the line between need and convenience, especially with the (almost) grey area of getting the kids in a teensy bit early for their NadMad visit. I voice this, and there is some disagreement about it all. The kids certainly don’t want to give up the prospect of a warm, dry room to sleep in at this point. We continue on. I get to practice my own self-assurance and let go of others agreeing with me.
We’re almost there when Julia’s feet are getting cold and we have to stop to warm them on our skin. Then it dawns on me: this doesn’t make sense. We have a meeting with Julia’s mom at sunrise on the lake (in the other direction) and will probably need to turn around and walk her back the moment we get to NadMad. Meaning she would be out in the cold the whole time, which is inappropriate when her comfort needs are the most urgent. We discuss this quickly on the trail, and decide to leave the kids and couple adults going to NadMad with their gear to carry and the remaining 4 men head back to our remote camp to keep Julia warm by the fire.
I’m weary now from lack of sleep and carrying heavy loads, and walking the half-melted trail is tiring. Stumbling back into camp we keep wondering at the sky, “is it almost dawn yet?” The fire is stoked once again and I head out into the woods in the dark to gather wood, a first for me and I’m excited to test my intuitive firewood gathering skills.
Soon we’re sitting by a roaring fire again with Julia, waiting out the dawn. Julia misses her mom and says so, and cries for a bit. Someone helps her warm herself by the fire. We tell her she will see her mom when the sun comes up, which we can now see will be very soon. Quietly, the 4 of us repack our pack frames and shake out our ice-y bedding. The profundity of our trip and the need to be of service and ready hits us during all of this. Someone says, “Wolf tracking is nothing to this, this is being a real gaurdian!” We laugh, still a bit nervously.
Dawn comes, rewind, and we walk backwards through our last sun’s tracks, with our loads, with Julia and anticipation of returning to camp. Julia gets cold again in between the frozen lakes, and wants fire. We realize by the time we made bow drill fire we could be back home in base camp again, but know too her need is real. We ask her to walk, which she is resistant to, but our solid reserve to rescue her from her tantrum gives her what she needs to begin walking and warming herself. She finally cries out a real need: “Will someone hold my hands,” through her tears. One of my campmates turns around, and for over a half-mile (okay: many canoe lengths) takes stutter steps, walking backwards while holding her bare hands with his warm ones, telling her a fantasy story about her and another toddler that used to live in our clan. The other 3 men walf forward a bit, and then wait, until we all feel confident Julia is warm and safe. One of us cries a bit at the beauty of it all.
Over the last lake, and at the watering hole is Julia’s mother. We all drink and walk the last little bit into camp, where we slump down with our pack frames, eat some warm food, and stoke up a fire in the bark lodge to dry our wet sleeping gear. I am a Northwoods zombie for the whole sun, but that feeling of freshness and appreciation that I knew could be mine: I’ve got it.
Some suns later, the clan gathers to feast Julia’s rite of passage: her first night camping away from her mother and father. The celebration rings true to her, she understands she has made a step in growing up, as is evidenced by the excited and serious look on her face when she speaks of her feast.