On Friday, December 4th 2020, I camped at Rock Creek, Montana. All the campsites that were not closed by the Forest Service were available to me, so I picked from what I could determine in the dark to be the best. Rock Creek, a substantially sized blue ribbon trout stream, ran along one border. On the other border, about a hundred years from the fire ring, ran the potholed, ice patched gravel road I drove to get there. Steep canyon walls rose on both sides, and large mixed conifers-- spruce, fir, and ponderosas-- kept it sheltered. This is not unexplored territory for me. I’ve frequented it often since moving to Montana, but usually during the summer in order to fish.
After I backed my truck into the site, I unloaded my gear. Then I set a cot in the truck bed, unfurled my sleeping bag on top of it, pulled out a book and lantern, and tucked in for the night. Thus, I had almost accomplished the first part of my mission, that being to leave Missoula after 5 pm, arrive at my destination, and get a good night's rest to be ready for the following two days.
The book I brought with me was White Fang by Jack London, and I do not think I could have chosen more aptly. I’m going to quote the first paragraph of the book, because I think Jack London, unfairly, has the reputation of writing some pulpy fiction, but he can also churn out some beautiful prose with a clear-eyed view of nature at its core.
"Dark spruce forest frowned on either side of the frozen waterway. The trees had been stripped by a recent wind of their white covering of frost, and they seemed to lean towards each other, black and ominous, in the fading light. A vast silence reigned over the land. The land itself was a desolation, lifeless, without movement, so lone and cold that the spirit of it was not even that of sadness. There was a hint in it of laughter, but of a laughter more terrible than any sadness—a laughter that was mirthless as the smile of the sphinx, a laughter cold as the frost and partaking of the grimness of infallibility. It was the masterful and incommunicable wisdom of eternity laughing at the futility of life and the effort of life. It was the Wild, the savage, frozen-hearted Northland Wild."
Opening the book, to read those lines under the light of a lantern in the cold of a northland winter night is a gripping experience. And I was gripped and continued to read about the struggles of two men and a dog sled team transporting the load of a third, deceased man, across the Northwest Territories. One by one the men lose their dogs to the jaws of wolves. Then one of the men is eaten by a wolf, and the remaining one left to fend for himself as they stalk toward him in the night. It is a man vs. wild tale....a man vs. the forces of nature beyond our control threatening to extinguish the flames of our existence tale….a man vs. the cold tale.
As I read White Fang, I slowly lost feeling in my feet. “Why did I bring this sleeping bag when I had a larger, warmer one available to me?” I thought. And I really didn’t have a good answer other than I wanted to try to get by with only what I needed and little more. There’s an aesthetic behind this idea. I’ve spent more miserable nights in the woods than I care to recollect, and I do want to be comfortable, but I’m afraid if I make comfort my main goal, then I might as well start saving up for an R.V. to get my outdoor fix or to just say hell with it and stay comfortable indoors.
By around 10 pm, my feet went completely numb, even under two pairs of wool socks. I did eventually nod off. But then at 11, I woke again, and I stayed awake, not so cold that I was completely miserable, but cold enough that I really started to empathize for the homeless across the country who had to deal with this almost every night. At 2 am, I finally said to hell with this and threw all my gear back into the truck and headed the one hours drive back home. Nature had won...for the time being.
Late the next morning, I woke comfortably from my bed at home and after waffling over the issue a bit, I decided I was going back to Rock Creek again. I still had my mission to complete and all my stuff was still packed. The only thing I added was my military surplus, extreme cold weather sleeping bag. Apparently, it was issued to the troops in Alaska, and it has always worked plenty well for me.
That afternoon, I found myself again at Rock Creek at the same site--still nobody out camping, I observed. This time I set out to accomplish what I was most excited for...set up a proper cold weather camp. If I could do this right, then virtually no time of year would be off limits for me to go out during the weekends (or every other weekend) and snowshoe or fish or just mull around a campfire and read and explore. It is the healthiest thing I can do for myself right now. In the woods, I feel the most alive and restored and when I pause to consider why that is, I think it’s not only because I feel especially attuned to my surroundings, but also because there’s a sense of accomplishment in being self-sufficient enough to sincerely bear out the conditions with a grin. But I digressed, first I made a warming fire with wood I brought with me, unapologetically dowsing it with lighter fluid to get it going quickly. Even with the sun high up, the temperature hovered around 20, and I didn’t feel like spending much time finessing a fire together with frozen fingers. Although maybe I will work on that later.
Once I got the fire going, I set to work on my shelter-- a canvas Lavvu made by Northern Lavvu out of Minnesota. A Lavvu is a squat tipi-like tent, originally used by the indigineous people of Northern Europe. I bought it after working my first fire season in the Salmon-Challis, and for the past 3 years it has mostly sat in our backyard, as a kind of decoration. I just never had time to try it out, but now I did, and I went to work laying out the poles and attempting to raise them. This turned out to be a frustrating experience however. I had not set up the tipi for a while, and I must have forgotten how I originally did. I fumbled and cursed and just when I wanted to give up, I figured out a method that got the thing raised. Hell yea!
The Sami tent was up, I put a wood burning stove inside it, and I laid out my sleeping bag onto a cold-weather ground pad, and then I went to work assembling the kitchen. No problem...canned chili for my evening meal, which while satiating enough, cooking a proper uncanned outdoor meal is another skill I’d like to perfect. Right before the sun set, I sawed up some more logs from around the campsite for the wood burning stove inside the lavvu, and I relaxed next to the fire outside it with plenty of time to sip Montana’s Highlander Scottish Ale and let my mind flow with the rush of the river and crackle of pine. I don’t think anything could be more soothing.
Around 7, I made my way into my shelter and sparked up the stove in there. A crazy creek camp chair made the perfect back rest to stay propped up to stoke the fire and read. I began Part two of White Fang and again found more resonance. The reader is taken into the viewpoint of a wolf and led through the intricate ecological balance its life hinges on. Ptarmigans, lynx, weasels, and moose all fight to impose their will on nature so that their offspring may survive. Out of the struggle, a pup is born, emerging from a dark den where his siblings have all perished to persist in a brave new world.
The wolf, I believe, symbolizes something of the wild in Jack London and in all people however removed we become from in the distractions of our modern age. Imposing my own will on a hostile environment, albeit with less an impact than an average person does in commuting daily to work and flipping on a power switch, makes me feel powerful in a way I don’t think anyone should have to apologize for. And besides there is so much wonder to behold.
I woke up the next morning, Sunday, around 5 am. The sun had not yet risen, and I made coffee on the top of the camp stove still half tucked into my sleeping bag and my top half layered in wools. I continued to read some and sip my hot beverage and dose. Then, around 8, I broke down camp to head home and complete my final task--journal my experiences to learn from the reflection and continue to grow.