Howling at the Moon

Snow Camping Adventure (Part 3)
The afternoon is passing quickly. There are only a few hours of sunlight left to finish the caves and get ready to survive the night. There is no time to waste. When the sun goes down, the temperature drops rapidly. Scouts have to finish digging and change into dry clothes before dark.

The process of building a good snow cave is simple, but strenuous. Scouts first have to slice into a snow drift to create a snow wall at least four feet tall. Then they mark out a giant tee in the wall to indicate their entrance. Sitting or laying on the ground, they dig straight into the tee until there is a cavity in the snow large enough for one of them to enter. Once inside, it’s a just matter of removing a ton of snow until the cavity is large enough for two sleeping areas, each slightly larger than a sleeping bag. Then the opening is re-covered, leaving only a hole large enough for them to pull their packs through. (Sometimes the smart ones put their packs inside before sealing the opening.) No matter what the temperature is outside, inside a proper cave it is always a survivable 33 degrees.

Working together, Scouts can usually dig out their cave in under four hours. (That is, if the snow is deep enough, and the cave doesn’t collapse, and they don’t hit a big rock, and the snow has not turned to solid ice after melting and refreezing a couple of times.) Boys have to stop periodically for water and a snack to keep their energy up, but they cannot take long breaks because their sweat will freeze and they could begin shivering right away. Slow and steady work is the way to win this race.

Scout at the entrance to his cave
Scout at the entrance of his snow cave.

By 5:00 in the afternoon, things are falling into place. The kitchen is mostly done and it’s time to check on the Scouts again. Walking towards the first cave, it’s obvious the weather has cleared and it’s starting to get warmer. That’s good as long as the temperature stays below 32 degrees. (Above that, melting snow can soak our clothes and cause havoc with our sleeping bags.) The first cave site is quiet. Both boys are inside arranging their gear. That’s a good sign. Walking further, I verify that all the caves are large enough to accommodate their intended inhabitants.

After some initial grumbling, the boys are changing into dry clothes. While they don’t feel wet yet, their inner layers are soaked with sweat from a long day of digging. Getting a shy boy to take off several layers of clothes in a snow cave, find dry clothes in a backpack, and then put them on without getting everything wet requires persistence. But it’s necessary. When the wind picks up later, convection heat loss can cause a Scout in damp clothing to become hypothermic.

changing into dry clothes
Scout changing into dry clothes

Dinner is a multi-course affair, starting with bouillon cubes in hot water topped with fish crackers, followed by dehydrated dinners (assorted flavors), and chocolate brownies for dessert. Hot lemonade is the drink of choice. Most of the boys have never seen bouillon cubes before and they are wary of the concept. With some adult urging, they sip the hot soup, and relax into enjoying their meal. That is, until one of the Scouts downs his entire cup of soup in one gulp and remnants of the bouillon cube get sucked into his mouth. He immediately starts gagging, shouting that it’s the worst thing he has ever tasted and acting like he is going to throw up. The other boys pour their remaining soup into the snow.

Our tradition is to take a night hike after dinner. Actually, every year, the Scouts complain and argue that they want to go right to bed, then after a suitable airing of opposing views, we strap on our snow shoes and take a night hike. Adults check for flashlights and whistles (in case someone gets lost) and we set off single-file into the semi-darkness of a full moon.

Its quiet and cold in the mountains during winter. A full moon reflects on the snow and there is no need for flashlights. The group moves silently, except for the crunch of their show shoes breaking though the freezing snow. Tall trees are perfectly silhouetted against the sky, trunks disappearing into the silver snow about ten feet above the ground. The lake is frozen and dangerous, but the reflection of the moon draws us closer, and we are soon standing on a small rise overlooking what will be deep water in a few weeks. The night is indescribably beautiful.

In the distance we hear a coyote’s mournful howl. Our animal instincts rise to the surface under the full moon and our civilized veneer disappears as we stand before the frozen lake and listen. I throw back my head and howl like a wolf in reply. The boys look at me and then, one by one, they take a frozen breath and begin howling. The night is filled with our sound and we feel a primal connection with the frozen forest. Every Scout realizes that he is in a special place and time.

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