Snow Camping for the first time
Someone once said, “When life throws you lemons, make lemonade”. Personally I am more of a green tea drinker. But when lemonade is served during lunch on a hot summer day, who am I not to enjoy the sweetness.
Taking an unexpected twist and turning it into a positive can transform a misstep into a life memorable experience. Such was a weekend several weeks ago. Storm Sandy had left the Southern reaches of Garrett County, MD with more than 24” of snow, snapped treetops lining roads, and residents without power for multiple days.
Winter Time Get-A-Way
Sitting in my little cube of an office in Washington DC, my mind wandered, thinking of the fresh snow blanketing my favorite hunting grounds. The coming weekend was the last days of fall turkey season, and deer archery season was open. It was then I realized, I had never experienced camping in the snow. Not the kind where you wake up in the morning with an inch or two dusting of white, but real snow measured in feet.
Early Saturday morning, the truck was loaded with my small cocoon backpack style tent, light rifle for turkey hunting, turkey calls, archery equipment, food and the like. As I headed west, the sun touched the eastern horizon.
The snow TV reporters talked of did not appear until I was driving parallel to Dan’s mountain along Route 220. In an odd paradox, the snow got deeper the farther south I traveled. The highest mountains in Maryland rest on its southwestern corner. Here was my destination.
Remnants of Storm Sandy
Arriving, I was greeted with power and phone lines dangerously dangling along the roads. Fresh snapped tree tops were cut and stacked roadside, reopening the roadways. Plowed mountains of snow bermed the asphalt roads. The Jeep / ATV trails of the club property were unreachable.
I formulated a plan. A stand of mature neatly planted pine trees was sure to be a refuge for the deer and turkeys from the deep snow. Driving down the dead end road, a waist deep snow drift blocked my progress. Walking gingerly on the top of the drift, my foot falls sank from ankle to calf deep. Just as I hoped, when I reached the pines, the old road bed was void of deep snow and covered with deer tracks.
As I stood motionless behind a downed pine tree top, three young deer walked within bow range. Several more deer could be seen moving in the background. I was on to something. Returning to the truck, I choose to carry my bow into the deer yard, instead of my rifle I had planned to use turkey hunting. I had really wanted to turkey hunt on this trip, but the conditions said deer hunt. So I adjusted my plans.
Slowly, I made my may along the snow free old road bed. The protection of the pines left less than 3” of snow on most of the old road bed. Quietly I would take a few steps, stand still next to a tree or behind a fallen tree top. The first deer I spotted was bedded with in bow range. Before I could draw my bow and line up the sights, the doe sprang to her feet and bounced away.
Nearing the end of the road and a small creek, I saw another doe bedded under drooping hemlock branches. I slowly drew my bow, settled my 33 yard sight pin on her shoulder, ran through my mental shooting sequence and drew taught my shooting finger. The arrow fell short. The deer was bedded 37 yards, not 33. Quickly she rose from her warm bed and took with her three other deer to safer territory.
Success comes in many forms. I was not successful in connecting arrow with deer, but the last two hours was “fun”. Like an Indian of centuries past, I digested the situation, made a deduction of where I believed the deer would be based on the current conditions and was able to walk within archery shooting distance of a bedded deer, more than once.
On the walk back to the truck, I watched from a safe distance of 90 yards, seven turkeys, including two mature gobblers, fed past a downed tree top I had stood watching the woods only an hour ago. “If I had only stayed,” I thought. Oh well, guess we can always second guess our decisions. Also I thought about the fact that if I had carried my rifle and not my bow, I would have been able to easily shoot a deer and turkey on the two hour walk. Albeit illegal, as gun deer season was not open. Given the conditions and location, no one would have known, except me and God. And to me that matters.
Setting up camp
Luck was on my side. The old railroad bed, turned gravel road, which led to my intended camp location and other hunting area, had been plowed free of snow. The logging crew using the end of the road as a staging area had been caught by surprise by the storm and several pieces of logging equipment had been stranded by the deep snow. They had plowed the road removing the equipment for winter maintenance.
Next to the summer gathering spot, a large picnic pavilion, I surveyed my camp location. Between the pavilion and a thick stand of hemlocks the snow was only a foot deep. Much less than the surrounding three feet.
The first step was to dig in. I removed the shovel mounted in the bed of the truck and began to shovel the snow. First was to cut a path through the berm of plowed snow. Once the walkway from the road to the future tent location was complete, I continued with the snow shoveling. I cleared the snow in a square just a little larger than the tent footprint. The removed snow was used to build a wall surrounding the tent.
Next I took to a task I had only read about, but had never actually done. I cut hemlock branches full of soft needles and placed them on the snow cleared ground. The theory is; the bed of hemlock needles would soften the ground, keep me dry and warm.
Once the bed of hemlock was complete, the ground cover was placed on top and the tent over that. I have been using this REI small backpack tent for several years. I like the simplicity of set up and the quality has kept me dry in many rainy overnights. However as I opened the waterproof duffle bag that houses the tent, and accessories, I found that the dampness of Ketchikan Alaska has rusted the hammer and steel tent spikes. Rust now stains the rip stop fabric of the tent. It appeared only stains, so I marked it off as battle scars and complete setting up the rain fly over the tent.
Hunt at camp
Tightening the last of the rain fly ropes, I spotted a deer feeding along the plowed gravel trail. I slowly walked over to the truck and retrieved my bow. A quick check of the wind and I stepped into the hemlocks. The deer slowly fed in my direction. I slowly worked toward the deer. The ease of not walking in the three feet of snow and the feast of mountain laurel held the deer’s attention. I eased near the mature doe. The fresh snow muffled my foot falls. The Hemlocks broke my human outline. The target stretched her neck, feeding on the green leaves. I estimated the distance at 26 yards.
The razor sharp broadhead hit the target where the green sight pin aimed. The arrow passed through the deer and buried in the snow bank. The speed of the arrow and sharpness of the broadhead did the job quickly. The deer sprung in the air and after taking only a few steps, stood not sure of what had just happened, then fell to the ground and laid motionless.
I had just walked up on a feeding deer and shot it with my bow. Not my first deer shot with my bow from the ground and not the monster bucks shown on TV, but very rewarding experience none the less.
Life experiences do not always play out as expected, rarely do they as my experiences have shown. But being open to what is presented and being prepared to take advantage of what is in life’s path is often greater than what is expected. A prayer is said over my winter venison before I began the field dressing.
The deer hung from the rafters of the picnic pavilion. I left camp returning to the area I hunted in the morning, intent on finding the turkeys. Thanksgiving was a few days away and the wild bird would be a great addition to our thanksgiving feast. Upon my arrival, I found a power line crew plowing the dead-end road using a loader. The two houses on the road were still without power and before the lineman crews could cut the fallen trees and repair the downed wires, they plowed the road for access.
I talked to the foreman for a few minutes. I realized the turkeys that were feeding in the area have long since left the area from the activity of the road crew. I returned to camp and used the last of the day’s light to quarter the hanging venison, packing the cooler full of snow and fresh meat.
The temperatures quickly dropped with the setting sun. I made a fire in the fire pit. Soup warmed over the fire and a bologna sandwich filled the dinner menu. I read a book by headlamp about climbers trekking up Mt. Everest.
My eyes got heavy. The sky was dark. The day had been a full one. Inside the tent, I arranged my double sleeping bags, striped down to my base layer, slipped on fresh wool socks, donned a knit cap and settled in for the night. Outside three feet of snow surrounded me. The only thing separating me from the winter wonderland was a thin layer of rip-stop fabric and two sleeping bags, one nested inside the other.
Sleep came quickly. The hemlock branches softened the ground. Warm and dry, I slept the night soundly and better than some nights home in the “regular” bed.
Ice covered the mud puddles in the road when I awoke. Darkness of the night remained as I left the tent. The clock read 5:00 AM, my normal wake up time. I was done sleeping and ready to begin the day. In the morning darkness I packed up camp and began the drive back to Carroll County.
Camping in the snow is something I had always wanted to do. Not really sure why, but felt like it would be a worthy experience, another thing to cross off the “been there done that” list. We often talk of our bucket lists in terms of the grand and wild; however even the smaller checks on the list of life account for experiences forming ourselves. My snow camping trip may have only been a quick weekend get-a-way to the mountains of Western Maryland, but the experience of stalking and killing a deer with my bow and successfully setting up camp in the deep snow is an experience I will remember for years to come.