The temperature had dropped below 0º Fahrenheit and we pulled ourselves lower into our sleeping bags. A line of us were laid out on a plastic tarp in the snow. If there had been enough light to see, and anyone brave enough to crawl out of their bag, we would have looked like a line of sausages…very frozen sausages.
Each winter I had taken a group of teen guys to sleep outside in the snow. I thought of it as “cold therapy” before it was cool. We did very little therapy, but we did eat a lot. There is little else to do when your main goal is to stay as close to the fire as possible in order to keep from freezing off any necessary apendages.
This particularly outing took place in the northwoods of Minnesota. We had hiked in to an old camping spot where I had spent many nights with my dad and brothers. We had laid out the crisp, blue tarp on top of the drifted snow and then flung our sleeping bags on top. That was the extent of pitching camp.
As darkness descended we went exploring. Hiking in the snow is mostly a ploy to keep winter campers from eating up all the food before the night has ended. The trick to surviving fourteen hours of darkness and frigid temperatures is to imagine the joy of bacon cooking over the fire. That normally is enough mental incentive to stay in your bag until at least 3 am.
Once we had managed to pull the guys far enough away from camp so as to exhaust a little of their energy, we began the return to camp. The warmth of the fire and the promise of supper was our motivator for speed. It is amazing how much more quickly teenage guys move when they are inspired. Getting them out into the night takes a fair amount of coaxing wrapped in threats. However once we promised them a campfire meal, it seemed like everyone had a renewed desire to move quickly.
Camp activity died down after we had ravaged supper, stoked the fire, and finally crawled into our bags. Everyone stared up at the stars, bragging into the darkness of how they were going to be warm the entire night. Someone boasted of his down bag, another about his heated water bottle he was snuggling. Someone else had brought along a box of hand warmers and could be heard opening a handful of them, then promptly overheating. But the award went to the wearer of the rabbit skinned hat. “Nothing keeps you warmer than a good hat. And rabbit skin makes a good hat!”
Then the quiet descended. The night was as clear audibly as it was visually. Beside the periodic shifting of bodies and the crunch of the plastic tarp, it was a silent night. Then, in the crisp stillness, we first heard the howl of a lone wolf.
But he was out there. And shortly, he was accompanied by a few of his closest friends. As the minutes passed, it began to feel as if we were surrounded.
Then from somewhere along the line of pre-packaged teen boys came the wavering words, “Boy, am I glad I’m not wearing a rabbit skinned hat…” And with that, one in our group burrowed lower into his bag, ceasing to show his face, and hat, until daylight.