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It’s 3:30 in the morning, time to drag yourself out of your sleeping bag and stoke the fire, but when you stick your head out into the cold night air, you discover that there is no fire. The wind picked up while you slept and stoked the flames; the fire burned itself out, leaving nothing but a few smoldering coals. That same wind had also shifted directions, blowing through your makeshift shelter, sending a shiver up your spine. The temperature is somewhere in the teens, but who knows what it is with the wind chill. Hypothermia hasn’t set it, but your previous experience tells you that without your fire it soon will. You’re cold, alone, and you start feeling the doubt creep in along with the chill; can you rebuild the fire in these cold and windy conditions?
That was my Saturday night, on December 19th, and while it may sound like a terrible way to spend an evening, I found it exhilarating. I can’t deny that it had its challenges, but despite them, or perhaps because of them, it may be my favorite camping trip of 2015.
I spent a lot of time planning this trip. It might have seemed like overkill considering it was only going to be one night, but it would be my first solo trip in a few years, and my first winter camp in probably a decade. To assuage the worries of my mother, mother in law, and my wife who was half a world away, I took great care in filing my Flight Plan, packing my gear, bringing more food than I would need, and preparing a solid Bail Out Plan. On paper, this wasn’t a very dangerous trip. My base camp would only be roughly a mile and a half from where I left my car, and though it was spotty, there was cell phone reception throughout the forest preserve. All told, this was a pretty safe outing.
But knowing that I’d be alone and that accidents can happen at any time, I planned as if it was a dangerous trip. A slip or fall down a hill or ravine could lead to a broken leg, which would make for an incredibly painful trip back to the trailhead. Hypothermia is a great equalizer, and can render a simple outing into a hellish couple of days, or worse. So I may have been a little over-cautious, but the extra planning detracted nothing from my trip, while adding a level of reassurance for my loved ones.
I set out early, since Yellow River State Forest is roughly three hours from where I live. Backpackers regularly use the 25 mile trail system and three primitive backpacking sites as training grounds for longer trips, but I knew that I would likely be alone since it was a cold winter weekend. Pulling into the parking lot by the ranger station, I was proven correct; no footprints in the snow, my tire tracks the only ones to be seen off the main road.
I filled out the backpacker’s registration, and grabbed one of the trail maps. I had printed out a few to bring with me, but the on-site map was higher quality and had more detail. I didn’t know how much hiking I would get to do, but I intended to hike to the Fire Tower in the preserve, if nothing else.
I slung my pack on, and started out. I wouldn’t see people again for over 24 hours.
“This backpack is too small,” I said to myself a quarter mile in. I’ve had this pack for twenty years, so that wasn’t a surprise; at age thirteen my parents had told me I would grow into it, but by my early thirties I had grown back out of it again. I need to replace it, but I knew it could handle the job for this trip. Had I been packing farther it would be a concern, but since I’d only be hauling it for about a mile and a half, I could deal with the imperfect fit.
I found myself challenged by the terrain more than I expected, but this was a good opportunity to test out my Monty Hi boots from Ridgemont Outfitters. They’re not the perfect pair of technical winter hikers, but that’s not the intention; the Monty’s are designed for some solid hiking, while still fitting a casual urban setting. With a price tag at $99, I had my doubts so I wore them on this trip to push them a little bit beyond their normal everyday wear. Overall I was pleased with how they worked out on the trail, and I’ll be writing a more thorough review soon.
Hiking along, I found myself getting too warm. Not wanting to get my base layer sweaty, I stopped, shed my top layer, had a bit of water, and then moved along. I walked at a leisurely pace, taking care when crossing streams, climbing hills, or surmounting a few fallen trees. Even so, it only took me about a half an hour to reach my home for the night at Camp John Schultz.
I chose to set up my shelter by the only fire ring with any real wind break. Plenty of deadfall littered the ground that would help fuel my fire for the night, and I could use one of the large log benches as the back of my tarp shelter. I hadn’t brought a tent because neither of the two that we currently own weighs less than ten pounds or would leave much room in or on my pack for anything else. The tarp was lighter, packed down smaller, and for one night I can pretty much sleep in anything.
My first task was to gather firewood and get a little flame going to take the chill off while I set up my camp. Luckily, as I had mentioned, there was tons of dry deadfall around. Before long, I had a large stack of wood, kindling, and tinder. Much of the wood was dried out pine; I knew it would light easily and burn well, but I also knew that it would burn fast, so I stacked up twice as much as I expected to need. Likewise, I rounded up three times the kindling. It’s always better to have it ready to go if you need to feed the fire more small material before moving on to the larger stuff.
After gathering, I cleaned out the fire ring, built a small cabin fire layout, and went to work getting it lit. It took a few more tries than I would have liked, but I finally got a nice little blaze going. After resting and warming myself, I processed more firewood; as a general rule, it’s always going to take twice as much as you think to keep a blaze going through the night. I brought my Estwing hatchet which performed admirably on some of the more stubborn pieces of wood, but much of it was so dry that I could snap it into pieces quite easily.
If you like having an axe or hatchet with you while you’re out in the woods, I recommend the Estwing Sportsman’s Axe (which I would call a hatchet). It’s solid, sharpens easily, and holds an edge well. The poll or butt of the head is more than sufficient for driving stakes (which I would fabricate for my shelter) or other simple work. It’s not a fancy tacti-cool hatchet or hand axe, instead it’s exactly what I need; a good quality hatchet for a reasonable price, made right here in my home state of Illinois.
After processing, I built my makeshift shelter. It wasn’t pretty, but it would do its job. In the winter, bugs aren’t an issue, so I just wanted to deflect any potential snowfall, and block a little wind. I brought a foam pad to insulate me from the ground, which is a necessity in the winter. It makes sleeping a bit more comfortable, but more importantly it keeps the cold ground from leeching the warmth from your body. Add to that a sleeping bag and a fleece liner, and I hoped I would sleep somewhat comfortably that night.
I had to hike in all the water I would use for the night, since there wasn’t a reliable water source nearby, and the snow on the ground wasn’t sufficient enough to gather without also getting a healthy dose of pine needles, dirt, and leaf litter. I rationed out enough to boil some ramen noodles, and make a cup of instant coffee. It wasn’t a gourmet meal, but paired with a granola bar it did the trick. After a quick lunch I relaxed for a bit with my coffee, staying warm by the fire.
I let the fire burn down, doused the coals, and layered up again. I packed a few essentials in my old paratrooper bag I had decided to use as a haversack, grabbed one of my bottles of water, consulted my map, and hit the trail toward the Fire Tower.
After an easy hike of just over a mile, I reached my destination. The 100 foot tall Yellow River Fire Tower is the only standing fire tower in the state of Iowa, but it isn’t in the best condition. Originally bought by the Iowa DNR from the US Forest Service in the 1950s, it was rebuilt in its current location in 1962. Unfortunately, it’s in pretty bad shape now. The stairs have all but rotted away, so the structure is completely fenced in for safety’s sake. At some point someone must have cut into the fence so they could try to ascend the tower, since the chain link was spread open on one side. I remained safely outside the fence.
I’ve had a slight fascination with fire towers for some time now; when I was a teen, reading about Kerouac’s summer as a Fire Lookout on Desolation Peak in The Dharma Bums painted the structure in a romantic light (even if it wasn’t nearly as poetic of an experience as he described in the book). I climbed one with my friends Brandon and Brian while we camped in Indiana a decade ago, and though we just hung out and enjoyed the view, the experience is one that has stuck with me. I was disappointed when I realized that, unlike the tower I had scaled with my friends, the Yellow River Fire Tower wasn’t open to visitors. Standing underneath it, however, I could see why. I do hope that in the future they’ll be able to restore it to its former glory, but I have my doubts.
Incidentally, the Forest Service does still employ lookouts on a number of Fire Towers in the United States. I’m given to understand that these positions are competitive, and the men and women who serve in these towers tend to come back year after year. If you want a spot, you may have to wait. If you’re interested in learning more about that job and lifestyle, as well as the history of fighting wildfires in the United States, I recommend reading Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout by Philip Connors. I recently finished this book, and loved every page.
I sat for awhile amidst a small stand of pine trees just outside the chain link fence, gazing up at the tower and drinking my water. I found myself feeling very happy. For the most part I believe that life tends to be better with company; I have a wonderful team of friends, I like spending time with my wife, and I’m eager to share adventures with the people I care about. Sometimes, however, I find something beautiful about solitude, especially when I’m out in the forest, truly alone. I laughed a little as I thought about this, and the sound of my own chuckle led to a full on sonorous belly laugh that echoed through the forest. A squirrel in the tree above chirped and barked at me, annoyed at the racket I was making, which only caused me to erupt in another bout of laughter.
I could tell the sun was getting lower in the sky so I checked my watch. Almost 3:00, so I decided to head back. I had plenty of time since sunset would hit at roughly 4:30, but I figured I should play it safe. No rushing necessary; I could enjoy the hike, relight my fire, and settle in at camp for the night.
Upon my return, I summoned life back into the fire, made myself a snack, and realized I still had some daylight left. I picked up my haversack and walked out toward a clearing I discovered earlier while gathering firewood. Here the trail opened up into a cornfield, across which I could see a distant stretch of highway, both reminders of the Midwestern civilization of which I am a part. I enjoyed the contrast; the forest to my back, the field in front of me. My life requires that I walk in two worlds, and I’m coming to terms with that, even if it’s difficult at times.
I stood there for a good fifteen or twenty minutes watching as the sun sank low, adding splashes of orange and pink to the sky before dropping behind a hill in the distance. There’s something about a sunset, isn’t there? They just never seem to get old.
Back in camp, I settled in for the night. I built the fire up a little, made some hot chocolate, and just sat and relaxed. I had a lot of time to myself ahead that night, and I was in no hurry. I did a little stargazing, stared into the fire, listened to coyotes yowling off in the distance. I processed the remaining wood I hadn’t broken down, and double checked my shelter. Eventually I settled in next to my fire with the single 24 oz aluminum bottle of beer I had hiked in, and my copy of On the Road: The Original Scroll (I’m sure you’ve noticed I’m on a bit of a Kerouac kick at the moment).
For several hours I read, took breaks to walk around my fire, snacked, and sauntered out into the clearing to bask in the light of the half-full moon. It was calm, quiet, and peaceful, and I found myself very comfortable in my home for the night. Around midnight I yawned and prepared to turn in for a little sleep. I had let my fire burn down to coals and then tightly stacked a few oak logs atop them. Unlike the pine I had used most of the night, oak burns slowly and by stacking it tightly I hoped it would smolder as coals instead of active flame. Still, to be safe I set an alarm for 3:30 AM so that I could add more wood if necessary. I pulled my boots off, peeled off my top layer, curled up in my sleeping bag, and quickly fell into a pleasant slumber.
When my alarm went off, the first thing I noticed was how cold I felt. I soon realized that the night hadn’t gone as planned and that I had awoken to the exact scenario I described in the first paragraph of this article; a change in the wind had left me colder than expected and had burned my fire down to a few coals, some of which had been extinguished by a light dusting of snow. I felt the old familiar worm of panic in my gut as I yanked my pullover onto my body and laced up my boots. I was cold, my fire was out, and the wind was blowing like mad. What the hell was I doing out here alone?
That panic wouldn’t be helpful to me, and I had enough experience to know it. As funny as it sounds, I started talking to myself, which is the best way that I’ve found to stop panic in its tracks. “Hey kid, you’re fine,” I told myself. “You’ve still got a handful of live coals and a stack of dry kindling. You can build this fire back up.” I got to work as a gust of wind sent a shiver down my spine. That shiver hit my hands and I fumbled my kindling onto the ground. More self-talk; “Listen, you’ve been in worse scrapes before. You’ve done more with less. You’re fine. Even if you can’t relight this fire, you’ve got a Bail Out Plan for getting out of here. You’re fine.”
And I was. Talking to myself, silly as it seems, stopped the panic from making me lose my cool. Sometimes that’s all it takes; reminding yourself that you’re in control of how you react, if nothing else. Using my reserves of kindling, I stoked the coals into a living flame, building it up with some scraps of pine, until I had a roaring blaze in front of me. Standing before it, every drop of panic was gone, replaced with a feeling of triumph. I had faced a precarious moment and had proven myself worthy. I hollered a victory cry out into the night, and laughed at myself joyfully. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a small victory, but it vies with my wedding and ascending Harney Peak during my honeymoon for the position of my favorite moment of 2015.
Danger averted, I knew I wouldn’t be getting much more sleep, but that was fine. I was happy, ecstatic really, about where I was, what I was doing, and how I had dealt with a potentially bad situation. I pulled my sleeping bag out from the shelter and sat down next to the fire. Reading, dozing, and occasionally snacking, I would still be sitting there as the sun rose around 7:30.
After daylight arrived, I added more fuel to the fire and turned to see a small group of deer in the forest behind me. I hadn’t noticed their approach, but I must have startled them by standing up and tossing wood onto my fire. They had frozen in their tracks and I stood motionless so as not to frighten them off. I reached for my phone to take their picture, only to realize it was sitting in my shelter. I stood watching the deer as they relaxed a bit, munching on bits of green peeking through the snow, or nibbling the pine needles on low hanging boughs. I slowly knelt down by my shelter and felt around for my phone, and then one of the pine branches in my fire let off a big POP sending the deer running out of sight back into the woods. Though I wish I could have gotten some photos of them, it was better to see them and not get a picture than to have gotten a picture and not seen them. I’m just sorry I couldn’t share it with you all.
After a breakfast of a scone and some coffee, I started tearing down camp, repacking my backpack, and setting the site back to how it had been before my arrival. I gathered all my trash and the few bits of garbage that had previously been left in the fire ring, tore down my shelter, and neatly stacked my remaining firewood for the next camper that comes this way. After I was all loaded up, I extinguished my fire, rubbed snow and ice into the coals, and made sure it was dead out. Then I bid adieu to my site at Camp John Schultz and retraced my steps back toward the trailhead where my car awaited my return.
In the 24 hours I had been in the Yellow River State Forest, I had experienced almost no signs of people. The hike back was no different. The only tracks in the snow were my own and those belonging to a few animals. I found a few shotgun shells, presumably from hunters, but no human tracks other than my own.
The return hike seemed even shorter than the previous day’s trek in, and I intentionally slowed my steps. Despite the cold, I found myself disappointed that I had to leave so soon, and I wanted to delay my departure as much as possible. There were miles left to explore, plenty of wood for fires, and I wanted to stick around. Unfortunately, I knew the following morning meant a work day, and I had a drive ahead of me. I stopped to finish up the last of my water and took a long look around. Yellow River is a beautiful place in wintertime. I imagine it’s just as lovely in the summer, but the desolation of the place added to its charm.
I could only delay my return for so long, so I continued on my way. The morning was gray but bright, and birds sang around me in the cold morning air. I smiled. This was a good outing, but I knew it was almost over. I came around a bend in the trail and spied my car ahead. I had returned to civilization.
Once more I contemplated turning around and hiking back out. I didn’t, for the aforementioned reasons, though I protested in my head. With a sigh, I pulled my pack off and sat it in the backseat, then got behind the wheel and commenced the three hour trip home, already contemplating my next outing. Hopefully it will be soon.
My time on this trip was short, but incredibly enjoyable. A lot of people avoid winter camping, and I can understand that. It’s cold and there are different dangers and discomforts than those confronted in the warmer months. That being said, there are no bugs, seldom will you run into other people, and a snowy forest is gorgeous to walk through. I needed this trip, to spend some time alone in the woods; to be free from the confines of society, even if for only one night. From time to time, couldn’t we all use a winter’s night, alone, next to a fire in the middle of nowhere?