Ten students and three trip leaders, headed out to Inkpot Lake to participate in the Annual Midwestern Crane Count for the International Crane Foundation, as well as to have an adventurous winter camping experience. For most of the participants this was their first experience camping in snowy conditions. I was one of the trip leaders, a trip leader in training perhaps. It was also my first winter camping experience! In fact, I am a Floridian by birth and moved up here to the Northwoods from Southern California.
"Each year in mid-April, over 1,000 volunteers travel to their local wetlands and favorite birding locations to participate in the Crane Count. This annual survey of Sandhill and Whooping Cranes spans over 90 counties in six states of the upper Midwest (Wisconsin and portions of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan, and Minnesota)." – International Crane Foundation
With impending record breaking snowfalls, we were monitoring the coming storm all week long. We figured that we might get dusted with some snow, but that the bulk of the snowfall would happen after returning from the trip. We got lucky, the weather was moving much slower than expected and we made it back to campus before any of this spring "winter weather" showed up. It did get a little windy during the night though, which is always a bit unnerving and loud when you are in a tent.
To plan for the trip, we ordered ingredients for meals from the kitchen, spent time going over which winter layers we would need, packing gear in pulk sleds, and of course learning about identifying and counting cranes. All of this was an incredible learning experience for me. My fellow trip leaders, Kate and Tim are incredibly experienced campers, in fact, Kate W. is an Outdoors Skills Teacher. She taught me the W.I.S.E. method of packing for winter conditions: Wicking – Insulating – Shell – Extra. Tim advised that I bring an extra pair of socks that never leave my sleeping bag, because wet socks in a cold environment are the worst.
Because of the strong possibility of snowfall and the already very deep snow base, we decided to use dry bags pulled by pulk sleds to pack our tents, sleeping bags and pads, as well as our clothing and personal items. Once the gear was assembled and packed, Kate W. gave us a slide presentation about what cranes we may have in our area, what they look like and sound like, and why the annual Midwestern Crane Count is important. Too be fair, we did venture out into the wilderness with the knowledge that very likely conditions were still too wintery for cranes to be around; the lake we were going to camp by was still frozen and a blizzard was on its way. But as Tim and Kate reminded me and the hearty students, "sometimes no data is still good data." The International Crane Foundation might really value this information: In 2018, on April 14th, in Northern Wisconsin, Inkpot Lake was frozen, there were very few hints of spring and temperatures were consistently below freezing, thus there were no cranes that far north at that time.
We each strapped on either backcountry skis or snowshoes. And several brave individuals volunteered to pull the pulk sleds out to our campsite. Inkpot Lake is approximately a two to three mile-hike depending on who you talk to. Every once in a while a sled became unbalanced or the tarp would become unsecured and items would fall off and need to be re-secured. The trek took a little over an hour with about three stops along the way.
One of our most difficult tasks was setting up camp while wearing snowshoes. We had to tamp down several feet of snow in order to make tent pads. At the time this seemed almost like an unachievable and futile task. I kept at it however, because my co-leaders seemed to know what they were doing. Without snowshoes and without staying on the area that we intentionally compacted, the snow was easily between knee and thigh deep.
While some students were assigned the duty of setting up tents and sleeping bags, others volunteered to make dinner. We had all of the fixings for quesadillas or a meat and veggie bowl; peppers, onions, tortillas, chicken, cheese and vegan cheese. We were all very hungry and eager to eat as it was past our usual dinner time and the trek out to the campsite had burned through some calories. I would like to say that we enjoyed a nice hot meal, but it was just too cold for our food to stay warm outside for very long. Dinner was icy cold before you even had a chance to stick your spork in your bowl. Luckily all of those ingredients still taste good even when they are cold.
By now it was dark out. Some people enjoyed s'mores by the fire before brushing their teeth and heading off to sleep. We were all tired and knew that the 5:00 am wake-up for the crane count would come fast. Bundling up to sleep was my next challenge, also actual sleeping... There was a bit of a snow bank in my back that made it feel like I was trying to sleep on a frozen Bosu Ball. Also, once I stopped moving I got really cold and my bladder kept reminding me that it was there... And at this point, I felt like my co-leaders probably were seriously annoyed with the fact that I kept shifting around to stay warm and get comfortable.
Kate W. was ever-nurturing and if she was annoyed, didn't let it show. The next tip she gave me was, if you have to pee that is going to make you feel colder. So I crawled out of my sleeping bag and around Kate, put my boots on, and went to relieve myself. Once I was back in the tent I put on a second pair of socks, a second pair of wool long underwear over my fleece lined leggings, a second winter hat, kept my hard-shell coat on and crawled back into my zero degree rated mummy bag. Finally, my teeth stopped chattering and I probably dosed off for about 20 or 30 minutes here and there.
I'm always impressed with the ability of youth to sleep almost anywhere. Around the camp stove, while boiling water for coffee and tea in the morning conversations, between listening for the sounds cranes, centered around the dreams people had been in a deep-enough sleep to have... Even Kate had had dreams. And Tim had been gently snoring, it was actually sort of a comforting sound to hear as my eyelids fluttered without even a hope of REM.
Now it was time for the main event, The Crane Count. We each went off in our own direction, a little way from camp to take in our surroundings, be silent, observe and listen. Even though seeing a crane was unlikely, that didn't mean that there wasn't other wildlife to observe. We mostly saw animal tracks in the snow and heard squirrels in the trees, and noticed small patches of the lake starting to unfreeze, but there were a few students that were lucky enough to witness a juvenile eagle flying through the area. After we each did our observations we came back together to share with the group what we saw, or didn't see before packing up camp and making the trek back to the Lowenstine Recreation Center (LRC) where we cleaned and dried our gear and made a late breakfast.
There are many memorable moments from the trip, even if some of them are of frustration and cold toes. Challenges are what learning experiences are made of. And the reflection of and processing of that information is what helps you prepare for similar situations or adventures in the future. I learned so much! I am grateful not only for the opportunity to have done so, but also for my amazing trip co-leaders, Tim and Kate, who kept us all safe. I am also grateful for the amazing group of students who were on the same journey. There was not a single complaint, at least that I heard, from anyone. And when that big, record-breaking snowfall finally started to hit us a day later, we were all grateful that we were already out of the woods! Pun totally intended.