A Conversation with a Winter Camper
By Charles Chandler
Photos by Keith Payne
Enough of this winter already. After the Freezing Season Winter Carnival, we were going to say goodbye to this long draw out mess. Winter was going to be over for good.
(Note to your family, next year try and catch this Winter Carnival. Newaygo County Conservation Collaborative hosted their first ever Freezin' Seasons Winter Carnival at the Newaygo County Sports Park located behind the Newaygo County Welcome Center. This was a free family event that had been created to get everyone out to enjoy Michigan's magical winter months and try different winter activities. Standing by the warming fire at Graves Lodge and looking out over the snow-covered hills and the ice fishermen on Twin Lakes was as pretty as anything you will see up around Kalkaska. Burning hot dogs over the fire and the chili cookoff were my favorite parts. By the way, your Senator Jon Bumstead makes a tasty pot of chili.)
Now as most Michiganders know winter is not over until it is good and ready to be over. We had a little temperature tease and then winter storm Ulmer dropped a cyclone bomb on us and we are right back in the thick of it.
A few days ago, I was headed down slipping and sliding into the White Cloud Post Office when I saw Keith Payne loading a sleeping bag and a big alarm clock in his Toyota 4 X 4 truck. It was howdy and then Brew the resident Australian Cattle Dog started barking to be let out, and a big petting session was on and one thing led to another. Keith and Brew extended the invite and soon we were out of the wind and in the cozy Brick.
The Brick is that building next door to the Post Office and the home and business of newcomers Keith and Darcy Payne. Back in the day, it was an old main Abstract Office. Now after a lot of hard work and a big makeover, it is a lovely, interesting space that you would expect to see in Colorado or Jackson Hole, Wy. The front end of the building is the office of Keith’s ZZ Wild Company. It appears to be a business office and a Patagonia retail camping gear store. The back end is a cozy functional home similar to those industrial lofts that you see in edgy architectural magazines.
We settled around the coffee table with hot beverages, the table being an old refurbished railroad baggage dolly and the centerpiece was a small self-contained fire that flickering softly. Brew had been banished to her bed over by the old vault. Gym, the black rescue kitty was poised behind Darcey’s yellow Forsythia arrangement getting ready for a surprise attack on her pal Brew. Keith and Darcy are extreme recreational buffs and moved here to enjoy the year-round activities this area provides, be it hiking, kayaking, running, ATVs, cross-country skiing, fly fishing, you name it they are all in on the adventure.
The Payne’s, and the N3 correspondent are gear heads and soon the conversation turned to the camping hammock that was hanging across the front of the Brick. I knew Keith was a winter camper because recently he was camping along the nearby White River in the Huron - Manistee National Forest and had sent a photo of his camp thermometer.
It read – 13 degrees. Not being a seasonal camper, I asked him to talk a little about winter camping here in Newaygo County. To specifically focus on the folks that would-be first-time winter campers or those that were summer campers and wanted to extend their camping season.
Keith: "I truly enjoy winter camping. The crisp days and those cold clear nights around a campfire in our snow-covered Michigan woodlands are indescribable and can only be experienced. We are exceedingly fortunate to have access to an abundance of winter camping opportunities. I do have a few tips that I can pass along to those folks looking for a new adventure or camping experience. For your first winter adventure I would suggest picking a camping location that has easy access and is close to a road. If things didn’t go as planned, you can retreat and hike back out to your car. One of my favorite winter camping spots is near White Cloud and where the North Country Trail (NCT) crosses Echo Drive. You can park off Echo Drive then hike north for about a half mile on the NCT until you reach the iron bridge that crosses the White River. At the iron bridge you can hike west along the high ridge. Along this ridge you will find some nice winter camping spots. You’re in the Huron- Manistee National Forest at this location and primitive tent camping within the Forests is allowed almost anywhere, unless otherwise posted 'No Camping'. Stay well back from the White River as camping is not permitted within 200 feet of any body of water, except at designated sites.
"I like to camp in stands of hemlocks or other evergreens and near water. I like the hemlocks because they provide an over shelter from snowfall and a windbreak. It is not the cold but the cold and the wind that will often be your challenge in winter camping. I also like to camp near small creeks because I like the taste of the fresh cold water better than snowmelt water. And I don’t have to carry stove fuel to melt snow for camp water. You have to be careful when getting water especially if there is shelf ice on the larger streams like the White. You never want to break through and get wet. When camping near water in the winter, you often get a chance to see a mink, otter or muskrat, all pluses because the animals are not as cautious in the winter season. The other reason that I like to camp near hemlocks is that in February the owls start nesting and are often in these hemlocks. At night you can hear them interacting with their neighbors and they are curious, and sometimes will drop down to see what your doing. Another one of my favorite camping areas is along Second Cole Creek and the NCT. You can park at the M 20 and NCT trailhead and then hike north along the trail for about a mile or so until you come to Second Cole Creek. There are some high banks and ridges there with stands of hemlocks. This spot is great for first timers because it too is in the National Forest, is near water and has easy access to the NCT and the road.
"My favorite time to camp is during the full moon, right now my company, ZZ Wild, is sponsoring Mena Moon (hangs) camp outs every full moon in 2019. We like those winter full moon nights because the days are short and you will spend a lot of time in camp.
On those full moon nights, it is often so bright until you won’t need a headlamp when in camp, sitting around the campfire, or going for short walks. Also, you will hear many sounds on winter nights that you would not at other times. The trees will pop and ice in the creeks move and crack. On those moonlit nights the deer are so much more active than in other seasons. Recently I actually had one bump into my hammock when I was camped along the White River.
"As for that hammock, with any camping you always need gear to match the environment and season. For first timers I recommend trying out your winter camping gear in your backyard. Get a feel for the challenges of setting up your camp in the cold while wearing gloves. If you are trying a new piece of gear for the first time, or if you have a failure you want that to be in your backyard. Know before you go on your first winter camp out. I like the camping hammock because I am older and they are very comfortable and quick and easy to set up. There is a learning curve to using one, so I suggest that you learn to use one during your summer camping trips. Don’t make your winter camp out your first experience with a camping hammock. If you are comfortable with a tent, you can certainly use that as well. With a tent, you will need to take a shovel and clear the snow from the tent footprint. When sleeping on the ground you must use a quality sleeping pad like a Thermarest.
"You will also need a top-quality sleeping bag. I recommend that is if you don’t have a four-season winter sleeping bag you can layer two bags. If you have a synthetic three season bag then you can use a smaller lighter down bag as a liner You will perspire when you sleep and the moisture will wick through the down bag and collect on the outside of the synthetic bag. When you get up in the morning all you have to do is shake the frost off the outer bag. Ensure that the sleeping bag is large enough so that you have some warm air around your body. A good tip is to not wear many clothes to bed and try to create the same environment that you have when you sleep at home.
"For winter hiking and camping clothes, you have to dress in layers. I recommend that when you get out of your car you want to start out cold because when you hike and or snowshoe you will expend a lot of energy and will sweat if you are overdressed. Never get your base layer wet or go to bed damp because that increases your changes for hyperthermia or an uncomfortable night. Again, I start my hike slightly chilled and uncomfortable and then I don’t have to worry about sweating and having to change out my base layer when I set up camp or go to bed. I like to start with a one-piece base layer of Merino Wool for hiking and then layer up with a breathable windproof jacket and pants. When I am inactive in camp, I wear a heavy down Jacket and down pants.
"For footwear, I wear my regular tail hiking shoes with a sealskinz waterproof liner and Merino Wool socks. Then over my shoes, I will wear a lightweight gaiter. My shoes aren’t Gore-Tex so they will get wet but they will dry out faster. Rubber boots won’t get wet but aren’t breathable and your feet will be wet from sweating. The same goes for leather hiking boots. When they get wet the often will freeze solid so that you can’t get them on in the morning. And most often if it is really cold, I will use one of the chemical toe warmers. I also carry a small waterproof bag and will put my shoes in the bag and inside my sleeping bag. In the morning they will be warm and almost dry.
"Another great thing about winter camping is that you can take perishable foods. Generally, you aren’t going very far and you don’t have to worry about pack weight. Quite often I will take a T-bone steak and grill it over the campfire. I also recommend that before you go to bed have a bit of warm food, maybe some carbs but not something heavy and drink warm liquids. This will help you stay warm throughout the night. As a caution, you should drink plenty of liquids during winter hiking and camping because it is easy to get dehydrated in the cold weather. You often won’t be thirsty but you will need to drink plenty of liquids. Winter camping is not complicated and the rewards are many. Just take a few precautions and then take pride in being a four-season Michigan camper.”
Along about this time Brew came over for another petting session and someone offered an adult beverage and the interview trailed off into questionable stories about fishing and other outdoor adventures. I also forgot to ask Keith about that alarm clock?
You can follow Keith, Darcy, Brew, and Gym on the ZZ Wild Facebook page where Keith post videos of their adventures and he also teaches the occasional camping class at the Brick.
Click on the following link for more details about camping in the Huron-Manistee National Forest. https://www.fs.usda.gov/activity/hmnf/recreation/camping-cabins/?recid=18536&actid=34