2018 Savanna Portage Winter Camp report

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2018 Savanna Portage Winter Camp report

Postby JosephLaFrenierre » Sun Feb 11, 2018 12:12 pm

L’hivernants du Perrault Winter Camp 2018

This was the 16th year our band of adventurers took to the northern Minnesota woods. The camp honors the 1784-85 travails of Jean-Baptiste Perrault and men who survived a wintery journey from Lake Superior up the St. Louis River, across the Prairie River Portage to Sandy Lake, and then to the Pine River post. The Prairie River Portage is the light canoe route that parallels the heavy canoe route of the Savanna Portage. We camp at Savanna Portage State Park.

Dates: February 9-10, 2018.

Participants: Engagés --LaFrenierre (John Powers) and Alexandre-Jean Martin (Kevin Williamson).

Place: just inland from the south shore of Loon Lake in Savanna Portage State Park (near McGregor, MN in Aitkin County) near where we camped last year and 11 years ago.

Weather: More often than not this camp revolves around tough weather conditions and this year proved to be the topper. Friday’s high going in was around 8 above but it felt OK while we worked setting up camp. By Saturday morning it was -17, far from our records at -30, but it cold enough and we were miserable enough that we cut the camp short by a day. Saturday’s high reached 5.

The toughest thing about this camp was that there was only two of us and at 57 and 67 years old the work load was daunting. This was my 12th two-man winter camp so I’ve been here before. The difference was that prior camps were intended as one-nighters whereas this was to be a two-night camp. The combination of near-frost-bit toes and a second day of extensive firewood gathering pushed us to decide that one-night was enough. It was a good camp in a lovely area but we’ve earned our medals and didn’t need to prove anything to ourselves.

We met for brunch at a small restaurant 10 miles from the park. Then we checked in with the park ranger telling her where we camping, how long we intended to stay, and that we may have visitors coming in on Saturday. The staff here are great and we appreciate being able to camp the way we do, which generally necessitates breaking a few of the standard rules.

The trek in was short and easy. We used our well-worn tranineaux (toboggans); Martin snowshoed but I opted to do without. About one-quarter mile across Loon Lake, up a short bank, then down slope a bit. Stopped to examine wolf tracks coming across the lake; we figured it was more than one walking in perfect single file; never heard them but just seeing the tracks added to the camp experience. Looking for the “ideal” camp site is always quite the affair as we sized up various spots relative to current and expected wind conditions, firewood availability, balsam for bedding boughs, possible fallen trees for wind breaks / fire reflectors, slope and need to brush out a clearing. We found a great site with a huge wind felled aspen for one side and perfectly located trees for tying off the tarps.

Camp was an L so we could each lie parallel to the fire and provide wind protection from two quadrants. Our Cree-styled wooden snow shovels were used to clear the site. We tied our tarps off the center tree with backs to the west and south. We used our toboggans to push back the tarps at the ground to provide a bit of a lean-to effect (no snow was forecast so a more structured camp wasn’t needed) and to secure the tarps; the toboggans then served as places to store our gear. A cooking bar was laid between two tripods; a S hook, a C-shaped fire striker, and a quickly made wood hook served to hang kettles.

Boughs were quickly gathered as the area was thick with balsam. Wood gathering was done in spurts but there was plenty of downed aspen, maple, oak. Some could just be hauled in, some snapped, and others needed our portable frame saws.
There was only 8-9” of snow on the ground. Enough for melting for water but since melted snow water is really dirty stuff not to mention slow-going, we took advantage of the lake and some trout anglers. No one was on the lake when we arrived but there many frozen holes where they had fished including one just 100’ from the south shore. Not sure how thick the lake ice was but the ice in the fish hole was a foot thick; about 15 minutes with the ice chisel and I punched through a small opening that filled the hole like a well. We marked the hole with balsam boughs to warn folks. By this time we had built up a thirst and that cold water looked inviting but common sense prevailed and we boiled all water before using for drinking or food.

The fire was kindled using flint and steel with tinder conk to catch the sparks and fuel the nest of cedar bark, dried grass and birch bark into flame. Water kettles were hung to boil. Martin had pre-made and froze into his kettle a delectable venison stew (venison from the fall hunt, wild rice, peas and carrots, garlic and flour for thickening); the virtue of this is to shorten cooking time making the food available sooner after a day of hard labor.

Then it was the routine of a camp. Nibbled on cheese, drank hot water to hydrate, gathered bits and pieces of firewood while it was still light (sunset is 5:30 and sunrise is 7:30 so nights are long and the moon which is approaching new moon status wouldn’t rise until dang near morning), drank a couple of Irish stouts that Martin smuggled into camp, talked. Around the fire it was toasty but step away and you could feel the air temperature steadily dropping. We ate the venison stew over the course of several hours, watched the stars, listened to a couple of barred owls, absorbed the silence.

Eventually we settled under our wool blankets, tired and full. Both of us suffered cold feet. Generally we stayed warm and as comfortable as you can get camping this way making a number of quick dashes to the latrine tree (I’ve commented before but the toughest decision is “staying or going” but the loss of body heat to keep urine liquid demands suffering the price of crawling out, relieving yourself, and snuggling back down. We slept but not well and as Martin said in the morning I was warm down to the ankles and then there was nothing. Yeah. Nothing but, in my case, nine painfully red toes and one a nasty shade of blue.

We rose at sunrise to rekindle the fire. Our water needed resupply so I hiked to the lake to find the hole had completely frozen top to bottom. But it chipped open fairly easily. Soon the small kettle was boiling for coffee water and the large kettle boiled for the next stew (bison meatballs, potatoes, carrots and onions) which became lunch. Breakfast was bacon.

As we licked bacon grease from our fingers, sipped the last of the coffee, and smoked our pipes we discussed whether to stay another night or not. We changed our minds several times but it was clear that we weren’t going to stay. We were tired from not sleeping well. Our toes were still very cold – by this time the temperature probably had risen to -10. We had gathered more wood for the morning and lunch time but still faced multiple hours of gathering if we were to stay. We pulled out the rum, drank our toasts to the absent and departed partners, and saluted all the camps we had shared as L’hivernants du Perrault.

Around noon we had visitors. Michel Dechene (Mike Chaney) and his sauvagesse (Lynnie Steiner) snowshoed in. Michel is one of the original Perrault crew. They brought home made shortbread and news of the outside world. After a while, we broke camp. Loaded the traineaux. Scattered the poles, boughs and wood and hiked out of the woods, across the lake to the trucks and home.

As always, I like to note any lessons learned or relearned. First, listen to your body. Even though it wasn’t going to be as cold Saturday night as it was Friday night, we didn’t want to push the envelope. Second, listen to your body especially as you get older. A two-man winter camp is physically demanding between the work to be done, the added difficulty of walking in snow, and absorbing the weather. All but one of my prior such camps were one-nighters by design. We’re both still fit guys but age takes its toll and, in particular, my strength and endurance are less than they once were. Having, say, four guys in camp to share the work load is one thing; doing it all with two guys is another. Third, winter camping is exhilarating and hugely rewarding and I’m so glad to be able to enjoy it. My life has been significantly enhanced by doing it.
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Re: 2018 Savanna Portage Winter Camp report

Postby Bob Miller » Sun Feb 11, 2018 5:34 pm

Thank you for this wonderful description of your winter camp adventure. I agree with you on the numbers. 3 or 4 is about perfect, As for lessons learned, my foot comfort has much improved since I began using blanket liners in my winter moccasins, along with heavy wool socks. Extra layer of blanket on the sole, and an insole of birchbark . The birchbark was suggested to me by a friend, and it really helps to keep the damp from seeping up into your feet. Changing out your footwear for a fresh pair at days end really helps too. Yes, the winter woods are a magic place. I hope I can continue with our camps for many years to come.
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Re: 2018 Savanna Portage Winter Camp report

Postby Ron Clark » Mon Feb 12, 2018 6:22 am

Thanks for posting your report. I enjoyed reading especially sitting here in the unseasonably warm Florida winter.
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Re: 2018 Savanna Portage Winter Camp report

Postby Fitz Williams » Mon Feb 12, 2018 8:33 am

I enjoyed that. You have a whole different set of concerns than I do where I live (SC) and it is very interesting to learn about them.
Ne vous fiez pas à tout ce qu'on vous dit.
L'histoire est une suite de mensonges sur lesquels on est d'accord.
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Re: 2018 Savanna Portage Winter Camp report

Postby JosephLaFrenierre » Mon Feb 12, 2018 9:23 am

Bob: regarding footwear. When I was still doing interpretation gigs my footwear consisted of moosehide moccs with uppers of Russian sailcloth/wool lining, inner sole of 4 layers of blanket material, two blanket thickness of uppers, and crude light wool booties; warm but awkward but great for interpreting. Now I've switched to moosehide moccs with modern era felt liners with wool booties. I think my issue lies with body circulation in general, old age, and prior damage to the toes (nothing serious but just cumulative over the years).

As I was composing my camp report I noted that for last year's camp the weather was in the mid-20s for highs with lows around 10 above. That was sweet. Kevin and I have been talking about making the camp date "weather flexible" -- pick a date but if it's going to be wicked cold just shift to a less hostile weekend. A little hard for everyone to be that flexible but weather has kept a number of the guys from joining in and I've hit the point where you want to enjoy the camp, not just endure it. We'll see how that plays out for next year.
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Re: 2018 Savanna Portage Winter Camp report

Postby snapper » Tue Feb 13, 2018 11:17 am

Thanks so much for posting your annual adventure. With no one left to share a winter camp in this manner still in my area, I'm left to remember the fun we had through your trips. Thanks so much for being willing to share them with us all.

That's all for now. Take care and until next time....be well.

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Re: 2018 Savanna Portage Winter Camp report

Postby Bob Miller » Tue Feb 13, 2018 6:31 pm

Snapper, how far are you from Sharbot Lake ? We are about 40 + miles north of Kingston. You are certainly welcome to accompany us next year
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Re: 2018 Savanna Portage Winter Camp report

Postby snapper » Wed Feb 14, 2018 8:50 am

Bob - Thanks for the generous offer. Unfortunately I live in central NYS. The last time I drove out to Minnesota it took me about 3 days; although I could probably push it to 2. Being winter, and now sure what the driving conditions might be, I'll probably pass for now but if I can work this out when I retire I'd love to be able to join you all.

That's it for now. Take care and until next time....be well.

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Re: 2018 Savanna Portage Winter Camp report

Postby JosephLaFrenierre » Wed Feb 14, 2018 10:36 am

Snapper -
Feel your pain on the lack of camping partners. Well, you saw that we were down to just 2 this year. Last minute health and family issues caused two others to bail out. I fear that most of the others are done with winter camping; maybe day trippers. Kevin and I talked about making this our last camp but I think we'll keep at it on a one-year-at-a-time basis. As I noted, we are definitely going to make the date weather dependent -- just not going to do -15 or colder again -- nothing left to prove on that score.

Meanwhile, recheck Bob Miller's invitation. He's in Ontario and it's the portion that is closer to you than to me and, heck, it's even south of northern Minnesota. Gotta' be warmer just on that score alone!! Those guys seem to be a bunch of tough Canadians who know their woodcraft.

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Re: 2018 Savanna Portage Winter Camp report

Postby snapper » Thu Feb 15, 2018 11:38 am

X LaFrenierre -

Whoops! Looks like I got my geography all confused. Thanks for pointing that out.

Bob - Any idea how far you might be time wise from the NY/Canadian border? I've got a passport so at least I don't have to worry about that.

That's all for now. Take care and until next time....be well.

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Re: 2018 Savanna Portage Winter Camp report

Postby Bob Miller » Thu Feb 15, 2018 8:17 pm

Snapper, Google Maps says to take the interstate up through Utica, Fort Drum, to Alexandria Bay...cross the border over to Gananoque, then head west on the 401 highway to Kingston. which is a 3 hours 45 minutes drive. We are an additional 66 kilometres north of Kingston , so 45 miles or so. Basically, you are looking at a half day drive.
We are done for this year, but will let you know in advance of next year's plans . Keep well

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Re: 2018 Savanna Portage Winter Camp report

Postby snapper » Fri Feb 16, 2018 9:19 am

Bob -

Thanks so much. Honestly, the drive isn't as bad as I expected so I'd be open to joining you if my schedule allows. Thanks so much for offering me this coveted invite. If I'm able to accept, I hope I won't disappoint you all.

That's it for now. Take care and until next time....be well.

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