THE WILDERNESS TRAVELER: FINDING THE PERFECT CAMPSITE

From the March/April 2006 Issue of Mushing MagazineJulie awoke to the sound of Jesse, one of our wheel dogs, lapping up water, and she kicked me awake. "Get up!" she said. "Camp's flooding."We'd parked for an afternoon nap on a glaciered creek, tall spruce sheltering us from both the burning spring sun and any wind. Picketing the dogs against the bank, we moved easily around on the frozen surface without bogging in hip-deep snow at every step. Since we'd only be there for a few hours, we hoped to escape any flooding, but luck was against us that day. At least moving camp was a simple matter of shoving our bed (the sled) off the ice, now covered with several inches of water.Whether stopping for a couple of hours during a long distance race or a couple of days during a winter campout, putting a little thought into picking a campsite can make the difference between a comfortable, restful night for you and your team, or a windy, bitter or inconvenient stopover.ResearchDo a little research before your trip. Check maps, talk to locals, and review the laws governing the area. Insure that overnight camping is legal, and avoid over-used sites. Plan to limit your impact, especially when other travelers will likely be camping there in the future. Talking to locals about the trail ahead is invaluable not just because they can alert you to trail hazards, but because they can guide you to good campsites - or steer you away from places like Squaw Crossing, near the confluence of the Tanana and Yukon Rivers, with its notorious local winds.We once made an open camp north of Shaktoolik on a low, open flat with no shelter from wind. Later locals told us we could have stayed in a shelter cabin just two miles away! Make sure you know what to expect at campsites. If no firewood is available, a stove with fuel will be an essential addition to your sled. While a canvas wall tent and wood stove make a comfy home in deep timber, it is quite inappropriate in high wind areas with no firewood. When selecting a campsite, start early. Far better to camp in the perfect spot sooner than intended than to run on and on searching for a good place and finally stopping exhausted in the dark at a less-than-desirable camp. Give yourself plenty of time for chores, especially if you are an inexperienced winter camper. We usually take about two hours to really settle in, get the dogs fed, camp set up, and dinner cooked. If you camp much earlier than intended, you can get an early start the next morning, well rested from a pleasant stay. Your selected site needs room for you to park and unload your sled, picket your dogs and set up your camp. Remember, everything must be clear of the trail, to allow other users to pass easily and without feeling threatened by the bellowing dogs.ShelterShelter from wind is critical not just for your comfort but that of your dogs. Wind sucks away heat, buries or blows away loose items, rips down tents or sheltering tarps, and can even whisk away sleds. Just because it is calm when you stop does not mean the wind won't pick up during the night, so make an effort to find a sheltered spot. Buildings, river banks, hills and other features offer some protection from wind. Beware that some of these spots will catch windblown snow, creating massive drifting. In most areas, good timber provides the most reliable shelter, and can often be found along creeks. (Near treeline, that green "Tree" area indicated on the map may just be a little grove of waist-high willows, so be prepared to deal with less timber than you hoped for.) Evergreens - spruce, fir, pine - provide the best wind protection. Once deciduous trees loose their leaves, their wind breaking properties decline, but they are still better than nothing. Even willows will provide a bit of a wind break and a few dead branches for a tiny fire.Timber also provides firewood, and trees to anchor your team or tie a tent to. (Don't anchor dogs to a dead tree or put up camp under one that might topple over during your stay.) Birch bark flaking off the trees makes excellent fire-starter; the lower dead twigs of evergreens provides hot-burning kindling, and spruce wood from dead standing trees can be split and burned, even if the outside is frosty, snowy or icy. Watch for these resources when narrowing your choice of a home for the night. If we are heading for a campsite with limited firewood, we often cut some en route and haul it in. In windy country, seeking shelter is even more important. If the day is calm, avoid places with signs of previous blows, especially hard-packed drifts. Find a patch of deep soft snow instead - inconvenient for moving around camp, but better than waking up in the throes of a fifty knot windstorm. If most trees have no snow on them but one patch sports big clumps on the lower branches, that is the spot with the least wind. When possible, camp away from areas with sastrugi (wind sculpted snow), corniced banks, wind-blasted ice, drifts with flotsam and other high signs of high wind.Mountainous places, along with some valleys and hillsides, can suffer from sudden winds, or may have much stronger winds than even nearby areas. This may be due to chinooks, high altitude winds, cold air sinking off a high peak or a venturi effect where the wind becomes pinched and concentrated by the terrain. Moving even a short distance may provide relief, if you only know where to go. Additionally, certain areas rarely experience wind. (This can actually be a problem if you are counting on hard-pack for traveling but end up snowshoeing through deep soft snow instead.)Locals often run the main trail up the sides of the river in the lee of prevailing winds, and certain spots along the way will be further sheltered by an island, curving bank, stand of trees or other features. Drifted areas do have some advantages. You can use a snow knife, shovel or saw to cut blocks of heavy crust, using them to build a wall for a windbreak, or an igloo for even better shelter. Even a pit dug down through deep drifted snow can offer relief from the wind. You can also seek out a large snow drift, such as one found along the lee side of a gully, and dig a snow tunnel for excellent wind protection. Even in low snow areas you can often find a good drift or layering where the wind dropped some of its load.Camping in severe cold can be as challenging as wind because escaping it is not as simple as ducking into timber. In hilly country, camp in low valleys to escape the wind, but camp high during deep cold, because these areas are often warmer - sometimes 20 or 30 degrees warmer than low spots. This is especially likely if you see an inversion, when distant hills and mountains appear inverted or distorted due to the temperature changes at higher elevations. Just moving up a few feet off a river or out of a low spot can add significantly to your comfort, and timber, especially spruce, is warmer than the open, even on a calm day.Snow may be cold but it also makes excellent insulation. If you need shelter from extreme cold, find an area of deep soft snow and dig down to ground, making the hole big enough to sleep in. Cover the pit with branches, a tarp and then more snow. If deep enough, this little nest may warm to ten above instead of the sixty below F ambient temperature. Alternatively, mound and pack the soft snow into an igloo shape, let it sit for several hours to set up, and then tunnel in to make an igloo. Both these time consuming techniques work best in areas of deep, light snow. In severe weather conditions, your safest bet is to stop over at a shelter cabin or other public-use building. Private vacation homes, trapping cabins and other privately-owned places should not be used without prior permission, except in an emergency.HazardsCamping on creeks and lakes may seem like a good idea, but as our spring camp proved, flooding may be a problem. Even during intense cold, overflow moving down a stream can flood inches or even feet deep in a matter of minutes. When possible, we avoid camping on ice if we are not prepared to get up and move at short notice. Sometimes when traveling down a major river such as the Yukon, getting up off the river to avoid wind or water proves problematic due to tall cut banks. You may be able to find a sand bar above the river, camp on sloping shelf ice along the banks, or find some other spot above the low areas that can flood. Be aware of other potential dangers. Avalanches must be expected along steep mountainsides or even under corniced banks. Camping on pack ice is rife with its own set of hazards including wind, ice movement or ice breaking up altogether. Active bombing ranges are not recommended campsites!WaterWater is not all bad. Finding a camp with nearby overflow, spring or an open creek for water for your dogs and yourself will save a great deal of time and fuel over melting snow. We once made a very pleasant camp just south of farewell on the Iditarod Trail because we found both decent timber and an open creek for water. We later learned it was a favorite rest spot for those perennial racers whose trail savvy included knowledge of sites like this.Canine ComfortsWhen choosing a camp, think of your dogs as well. Look for a safe, sheltered area to secure your team. Dogs love snuggling down beneath large spruce trees, which protect them from wind and snow and whose low spreading branches offer some insulation. They may even find bare ground beneath the trees to sleep on.In some remote wilderness areas you can pick spruce boughs for the dogs to sleep on to get them off the snow. Spreading the shards of spruce cones left in squirrel middens also gives them a dry spot. Thin-coated dogs especially need some insulation between them and the snow, and if you think local resources may not be available (or legal), plan on carrying pads or coats for these dogs. Camped out in an open, windswept area near Unalakleet one March, we hunkered down in a bit of a draw and picked grass exposed by wind for both the dog's nests and our own. Sometimes we like to camp in instead of camping out. Later in that same trip, we were lucky to learn about the pine Creek shelter cabin located in the Topkok wind tunnel east of Nome. As the wind howled outside the cozy little building, Julie invented the little ditty hat has ruled our campsite selection for many years: "I've camped out in the snow, I've camped out on the ice, but when the wind is blowing, a cabin sure is nice!"Julie and Miki Collins run an 80-mile trapline by dog team in Bush Alaska and are the authors of Dog Driver: A Guide for the Serious Musher

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