Teaching Fellow Artemis Eyster writes about a CS20 (Spring 2020) weekend camping activity that she co-led with Teaching Fellow Max Trostel in the Sylvania Wilderness Area. All participants were involved in the planning and implementation of the trip.
The Sylvania Wilderness hugs the northern border of the Conserve School campus. Beginning at the northern-most boundary of Sylvania, we had two days to travel back to campus. "Well, where should we start?" We all peered at the large topographic map of the Sylvania Wilderness Area, containing over 34 lakes and countless old growth, pine, hemlock, and birch trees.
Which lake would we travel across first? Many of us were excited about the narrow channels and steep shores of Crooked Lake. We considered that in CS18 (Spring 2019), students and staff had completed a similar "Sylvania Traverse," but they hadn't ventured onto the channels of Crooked lake. While ice transforms lakes into highways perfect for pulling sleds, it also adds to the risks of backcountry travel. Knowing that the ice might be thinner in the narrow channels of Crooked Lake, we came prepared with an ice auger over 4 feet long. We could drill through the ice and confirm that it was safe to travel across.
With five sleds packed with sleeping bags, food, tarps, camp stoves, and more, we began our adventure towards Crooked Lake. Following a bearing of 119 degrees, we snowshoed in a single file line. We traveled over the ridges and gullies of a hemlock forest and had several unplanned falls and flipped sleds navigating the challenging landscape. By the time we reached the shining expanse of Crooked Lake, we were ready for some flatter terrain. While maneuvering a pulk-sled through the forest had been challenging and sometimes frustrating, on the ice, the sleds sailed effortlessly behind us.
After tramping across the ice with snowshoes, we soon found ourselves in a narrow channel with hemlock and alder framing our path. We stopped and took turns drilling. At its thinnest point, the ice was over 8 inches thick (considered thick enough for a car to drive across). We felt reassured to proceed onwards.
Our footsteps quickened into a run when we saw an object on the ice ahead. After we reached the deer carcass, we realized we stood amidst many tracks left by ravens and wolves. The legs, rumen, and skull rested on the ice with sinew and bits of hair still attached. Although there were no animals present as we surveyed the area, observing the consequence of their actions was not only exhilarating but also helped us have a better understanding of the creatures who stood where we were standing in the recent past. After our first experience examining a deer carcass, we eagerly scanned our path forwards and rushed to investigate three more animal carcasses throughout our trip. The increase in group energy after spotting a deer carcass on the horizon was countered by the peaceful tranquility that we experienced when we reached Clark Lake.
After some time on the lake, someone noticed a rumbling sound, and we all stopped to listen. Realizing it was coming from underneath us, we laid down on the ice with our ears pressed against the snow and listened to the noise, rumbling ice cracks. We were in awe. There was life happening under the frozen lake that we could not see. A student, Michaela, wrote a poem about our experience.
In the middle of the night, when we heard the grey wolves, on the opposite shore of Loon Lake, we listened to their yaps and descending cries. For many of us, it was the first time we had heard wolves howling. While it had been exciting to inspect wolf tracks and deer they had killed, hearing them in the present felt different. We fell back asleep soon after hearing the wolves. In the morning, a clear sky greeted us.
Making our way back to campus, we crossed two additional lakes (Florence, and Big Bateau) before heading southwest to the sledding hill and finally to the Lowenwood Recreation Center. Flushed from the sun and wind off the lakes, we returned to campus, having gained a deeper understanding of both what it meant to travel and camp in the winter as well as a more acute understanding of the other beings with whom we shared the winter wilderness.
Photos Contributed by CS20 Students Ben - Sheboygan, WI, and Michaela - Asheville, NC.