In the approaching twilight it could seen that the park was covered in even deeper snow as a result of the lake effect, a phenomena happens which occurs when the damp air from Lake Michigan’s water meets the cold air moving in from the west. The accumulation amounted to over two feet of snow plus areas of drift that reached four feet or more. But, surprisingly, the park road had recently been plowed. The rest of the campground was invisible, buried in deep snow.
Before attempting to establish a campsite, it seemed better to report in to the attendant’s office, an old log cabin where a light could be seen through its windows. A forest green Jeep Cherokee with state government plates along with two beat up Ford sedans sat in front of the building. Smoke rose out of a chimney on the side of the cabin. Snow shovels leaned against a stack of firewood next to the door.
All three of us slid out of the GMC and walked up to the cabin. The air seemed bitterly cold after the warm cab, and the window on the front door was mostly opaque, covered by frost. There was a little circle of clear glass in the middle through which could be seen four old guys sitting around a table playing cards. Each had a brown bottle and a pile of chips in front of him. Cigarettes and cigars smoldered in ash trays.
I knocked on the door as Dan and Lance waited behind me.
One man with a blue Cubs baseball cap looked up briefly and glanced at the door through thick, frameless spectacles. He quickly returned his attention to the cards in his hands.
Each of the men tossed a red chip into the center of the table and went on with their game.
“Pound on the door, damn it,” groused Dan.
I looked back and said, “Jesus, I think I can do this.”
Dan snorted while Lance looked around.
I slammed on the door with the fat of my hand. All four of the men inside looked up at the door in surprise before a large man wearing a navy watch cap and tan Carhartt overalls stood up as he slid his wooden chair back. He lumbered toward the door and opened it. The warm air of the cabin came out tainted with the foul oder of cigar and cigarette smoke.
“Can I do somethin’ for ya?” His voice sounded like something coming from a bear, to which he bore some resemblance. He had a long, thick, black beard that covered most of his face. His red and black checkered shirt sleeves were rolled up to his elbows revealing massive arms and hands, also covered with a thick crop of bristly dark hair.
“Ya ain’t stuck are ya? Don’t have anything to pull ya out wit.”
My mind flashed back to the Jeep Cherokee, but I ignored it.
“No, we aren’t having any problems,” I answered, suddenly feeling a little intimidated and foolish. “We want to register for a campsite.”
The bear looked at me for a second with a confused frown forming, as if I had been speaking Chinese. He turned his head and briefly regarded his companions, maybe searching for one to interpret. Then, returning his attention to me, he growled loudly.
“Camping? Here? You wanna camp here, tonight?”
He again looked back at his friends.
“These dumb shits want to register for a campsite!” He shouted.
The company at the table all stared at the goofs now crowded in the doorway. Each of the men had a big letter O formed with mouths, all uniformly surrounded with facial hair. Then they all started laughing.
“The park is closed for Christ sake.” He roared. “I shoulda closed the damn gate, but I didn’t expect nobody would wanna fuckin’ camp here now. It’s goddam January!”
I did not know how to react to a bear that seemed to be ready to rip my head off. I was beyond intimidation. I started to feel fear.
“We didn’t mean to interrupt your game,” chimed in Lance, stepping further into the light. We have heavy winter gear and firewood. Just a couple of nights and we’ll be gone.”
“Look,” replied the big man. “We ain’t rangers or even camp hosts. I’m just keepin’ the place up. I call the snow plow when it gets deep and make sure the pipes in the cabin don’t freeze up.”
If you get cold, you can’t come in here. There ain’t enough room.”
I guess you can camp, but don’t make a mess.”
He forcefully closed the door, shoving us out into the cold before anyone could think of an appropriate response. As we filed back to the truck, we could hear the sound of loud, derisive laughter.
* * * * * * * * *
The campsites were covered with snow, but after Dan and I bickered for a few minutes, we ended up picking a spot among some fir trees where the drift were not so deep. The truck had snow tires, but it still was an effort to push in close to where the tent would be set up. No one said anything as I rocked the pickup back and forth, eventually coming to rest under one of the trees.
The temperature had dropped more than a few degrees since filling up at the CENEX station. Although it was tempting to get a fire started, it seemed prudent to get the tent up before total darkness fell.
With a couple of scoop shovels that I’d found in my garage, Dan and I cleared the snow from an area where we would put up the tent, never thinking about the insulating property of snow. We put up the stiff canvas tent on bare, frozen ground without bothering with stakes. It would have been easier driving the stakes into solid rock.
While we were struggling with what would be our shelter for the night, Lance made himself useful by unloading the stolen lumber from the bed of the truck. He stacked most of the boards on one side of the tent and arranged a few where the fire would be. He also brought over the folding canvas camp stools, but the metal legs were encased in ice. We’d have to wait for seats until the chairs were thawed by the fire.
Once the tent was up, Dan brought over a small folding table and put the gas stove on top. Next, he attempted to unscrew the cap on the fuel reservoir but found his fingers had turned numb from the cold. He swore to himself and put on gloves.
Meanwhile, I grabbed a can of charcoal lighter fluid and liberally squirted the stuff on the wood that Lance had prepared. Taking the Bic lighter I leaned down to ignite the fire with a flick of my thumb. For a brief moment it appeared that the fuel would not burn. Then a small, blue flame appeared on the edge of a board, slowly expanding and turning into a dull orange spot of fire in the center of the wood pile. Not exactly a bonfire.
The roast chicken was frozen, solid as granite. The potatoes were also stone hard. The food needed a decent fire to thaw. Dan’s chili was also a hard, brown piece of ice in the pot. He filled the camp stove reservoir with white gas and pumped the plunger to build up the pressure. He lit the stove and set the frozen chili on the burner. The flame burned a hissing blue.
Night had fallen and outside the dim light of our tiny campfire, the sky park was fully enveloped in black. Lance stepped away from the circle of light and looked up at the sky.
“Hey,” he exclaimed. “The Milky Way is incredible!”
Dan and I wandered out to join him.
Not only was the Milky Way brilliant, the sky was filled with twinkling stars. There seemed to be a hundred constellations visible. Never had the night seemed so filled with celestial bodies. There was a slight glow on the eastern horizon, a promise of a rising moon.
The stolen wood had yet to expand into a warming campfire. Any heat that the small flames put out seemed to be absorbed by the surrounding air. It would be awhile before we could comfortably sit and get warm.
Lance, still enchanted by the night sky, pointed to the east and said, “Look, the moon is coming up. Let’s go look at the lake while the fire builds.”
Dan and I didn’t answer but slowly sauntered after the hobbit who was already on his way.
There was no trail, and the snow was deep. It was slow going as we high stepped toward the shore. Although the air was cold against our faces, the exertion of our movement kept our bodies warm. By the time we reached the shore, we were actually starting to perspire and our breaths turned to frost on our beards.
Reaching the area where the shore should have been, a sheet of think had formed creating a shelf that extended almost a hundred meters out toward the water. A full moon rose above the sparkling waves and lit up a fantasy beach of mysterious shapes of white forms and crystal caves.
Enchanted by the unexpected museum of art, we wandered among the ice figures stopping to huddle inside fanciful caves. In the distance the lake shimmered in moonlight as the waves undulated with soft grace. Time moved at a different pace, and it seemed as if we were out on the ice shelf for hours, even days, until Dan broke the spell.
“God damn it,” he shouted. “My leg is soaked.” He’d managed to break through some ice into frigid water below. But, when we looked at him it was obvious that he’d only sunk in as far as his boot heel. When Lance tried to calm Dan with this observation, Dan ignored him.
“I gotta get back to the fire or I’ll freeze my leg off.” He was in a panic state. It seemed better to say nothing and follow him back to the camp.
* * * * * * * * * * *
Most of the wood on the fire had burned during our absence, and there was only a disappointing glow from the coals and a few, sporadic weak flames. Dan and Lance were quick to gather more of the stolen boards and toss them on the dying fire. The wood slowly caught with the help of a little more lighter fluid, the decent fire was restored to its previous state but still threw little heat.
The chicken and potatoes remained in solid state. The chili had a minuscule bit of liquid bubbling up one side of the aluminum pot. Not enough to fill a small spoon.
Dan fumed and hissed as he again pumped the gas tank.
“I thought it would be nice if I could at least have a little chili while my foot thawed out,” he complained.
I pointed out that his foot wasn’t frozen and, in fact, his boot wasn’t even wet.
His brown eyes blazed as he retorted, “Bull shit! I sank up to my knee back there.”
Your jeans don’t look wet,” Lance observed.
Dan glanced down. Then, after a second of silence, grunted, “Well, it felt cold. My boot got wet.”
Lance and I silently concurred that it was best to leave the matter be.
The fire had, at last, built itself into a proper blaze, but there was as yet little heat coming forth. The chairs, however, could now be folded into seats, and we pulled them close to the fire where we sat down, trying to feel some warmth. Dan pushed his right foot near the flames. Lance smiled to himself as if enjoying some private joke.
“Ah shit!” Dan shot up, knocking over his stool and hopped around. There was a slight hissing sound as he stuck the melting sole of his boot into the snow. He continued to swear as his foot gradually cooled. After a few minutes he stopped hopping and started to limp while Lance and I valiantly tried to keep from laughing.
Next, Dan, while pretending to ignore us, not daring to look at us yet, went to check on the progress of the chili. Nothing had really changed. There was still only a bit of liquid barely moving up the side of the pot. He returned to the fire and picked up the stool, sat it upright and sat down
“I thought it would be nice ,” he repeated, “if we could just get a cup of chili whenever we felt like it.” He sneered, looking at me as if the frozen food were my fault.
I grabbed a bottle of beer and tossed it to him, thinking that his special brew might dampen his anger. Popping the top off, he stared at the bottle as it foamed over the lip.
I opened another couple for Lance and myself. Taking the first swigs we all noticed the same thing. The beer was starting to freeze.
“Fuck!” We all exclaimed in rough chorus.
Dan moved with admirable speed as he moved the cases closer to the fire. The fire that was now beginning to dwindle again. Lance and I moved to put more of the stolen wood on the fire, and we all started to gulp the beer as long as it was still in a semiliquid state.
It became obvious that there would be no chicken or potatoes fir dinner. That part of the meal remained frozen with no sign of thawing. But then the hobbit got up and grabbed the axe and pulled the chili off the stove. Before Dan could object, he dumped the frozen block of chili on to the snow. Picking up a hatchet, he chopped off a small chunk, picked it up and put it in his aluminum cup. Then he put the cup on to the hot coals near the edge of the fire.
His cup was from an army mess kit and was large enough so that the melted chili could be shared. Lance poured the hot, bubbling food into smaller cups and then hacked off another chunk to heat. Unfortunately, most of the chili was gone within fifteen minutes, and there was nothing else but fizzy beer for nourishment.
Dan threw more wood on the fire in an effort to get the fire hot enough to generate some heat, but the cold still leaked in through the multiple layers of our clothing. We scrunched closer to the flames and grabbed more beer. The brew was icy and only half of it came out. Water freezes before alcohol, and the taste was strong, like bad, low grade booze. Dan twisted the top off another bottle.
“Christ,” he swore. “This tastes like bat piss.”
Lance, not normally a beer drinker, choked on a cold swallow and coughed. His grimace showed through his thick beard.
I reached for another beer and noticed two bottles were broken, missing the necks. It seemed prudent to say nothing.
Meanwhile, Dan had gulped down his beer and went back to the stash for another. Now there were four broken bottles.
Surprisingly, he did not curse but gave out advice.
“Drink fast,” he advised. “The god damn bottles are exploding.”
Lance, of course, had a better idea. He opened another bottle and poured the unfrozen beer into his cup. At this point there was even less liquid, so he opened yet another beer and added the beer to that already in his cup, the same cup that he’d used for the chili, unwashed.
Dan and I followed suit and soon we were all drinking strong, chili flavored beer.
We all kept moving closer to the fire until we seemed to be actually sitting in the blaze rather than near it. It was almost comfortable other than the smoke getting in our eyes. If anyone had seen us, it would have looked like an attempt at self-immolation by three members of a satan worshipping cult.
In less than an hour, the rest of the bottles were broken and the last of the wood was on the fire. We all kept edging into the fire as it died. Every so often one of us would cough from the smoke. Our eye watered, and our noses wept as well.
At last only a few, intermittent flames flickered out of the coals, and the cold air moved in around us. The party was over.
We crawled into the dark tent where there seemed to be waves of cold air radiating from the ground. No one had thought to open the front flap. The interior of the tent seemed even more frigid than the outside air. The thought of removing our parkas, let alone our clothing, seemed foolish and we climbed into our sleeping bags fully dressed, including boots.
Lance seemed to fall asleep immediately and was softly snoring. Dan huffed and swore to himself for what seemed to be half an hour or more. He was having the same problem that I was facing.
My breath was condensing on my beard and mustache and quickly froze. To defrost my face, I ducked my head inside the sleeping bag where the ice would melt. I stuck my head out and tried to wipe the water off my face. The moisture would again freeze. Repeat like a turtle like a turtle poking its head in and out of its shell.
Eventually we were all sleeping but restless. Lance woke up and got up to stick his head out the tent door. If he needed to pee, he must have changed his mind and crawled back into his bag.
Waking frequently, I would go through the ritual of ducking my head in and out of my bag several times. The tent stunk of smoke, chili and farts. It was a restless night for all of us. Cold continued to creep up from the bare ground. No one fully slept for for more than a few minutes at a time.
A dim light grudgingly appeared as the night finally ended. I looked over toward Dan’s bag and saw that it was already rolled up and packed on top of the insulation pad. Lance also was gone, but his bag lay unzipped and open.
I struggled out of my bag and stiffly arose. Shaking my head and swiping at my face, I tried to get the ice and water out of my beard.
Little pin sized holes in the appeared on the wall of the tent where flying coals from the fire had landed. Near the base, larger spots were burnt through where the canvas had actually burned. Repairs would be needed.
Just outside the front flaps, little pyramids of beans could be seen, courtesy of Lance.
The sun had not yet come up, but the sky was a brilliant blue. It was light enough to see that
several areas on my jeans and parka had been burned where hot coals had landed. The toes of both boots were blackened. The others had similar damage to their clothing. We all smelled like scorched cloth and wood ashes.
Dan had folded his table and stowed it as well as the camp stools in the bed of the GMC. Lance picked up the broken bottles and put them into a large, black trash bag. We hastily pulled down the tent and, without bothering to fold it up, threw it in the back of the pickup. There were few words spoken as we got ready leave.
“Jesus Christ!” Dan exploded as he looked east, toward the rising sun and the lake. The ice shelf upon which we’d been flocking the night before was entirely gone, broken up and washed away while we were sleeping. Now there were huge waves washing at the exposed shore.
No one said a word as each of us contemplated the shore, imagining the disaster that we barely missed. We might have been floating around in the middle of Lake Michigan or even silently resting on the bottom under the tortured surface.
We piled into the cab quickly, ready to leave this misadventure behind. I pulled out the choke, gingerly pumped the gas pedal, turned on the ignition, and pressed the starter button.
The engine barely turned over.
No one said anything. I tried again.
The motor turned even slower. I was ready to try again.
“Wait,” said Lance. “Turn on the headlights.”
Dan and I looked at him with concern. His suggestion seemed crazy. It would take even more power out of the already weak battery.
“Just for a minute,” Lance said. “The current will heat the battery a little.”
One more crank of the motor might be our last chance, or it might be the final blow. Sixty seconds of voltage, might take less from the small charge that was left in the battery.
Dan looked at me. I shrugged. We couldn’t just sit and do nothing.
I switched on the headlights.
Dan looked at his watch and we waited while the seconds slowly dragged by. After what seemed like five minutes, Dan said, hesitantly, “Ok, give it a try.”
I turned off the lights and held my breath as I again hit the starter.
“Uhn, Uhh, Uhh.”
“Fuck!” Dan, of course.
I tried again.
“Uhn, uhn,,,uhhnnn,” as the battery started to fail.
But then, a cough from the engine.
“Uhn,,,,,,uhn. Cough, cough’” and the motor roared to life.
We all cheered, including Dan. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
Afraid of stalling, I chose to let the motor warm up as it charged the battery. Lance fiddled with the radio. Being Sunday, there were a number of stations broadcasting religious services from places as far away as Texas. Lance explained that the waves bounced off the stratosphere or something. He kept tuning until he found a local station that was just reporting on the weather.
“It’s a beautiful, clear morning, but be careful. Dress warm. It is twenty-eight degrees below zero!”
“And now here is Kris Kristofferson with Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goalpost of Life.”
Great great story!
Sounds pretty magical—even with the mishaps.
Thanks for getting this story of intense suffering concluded in a timely manner. I put on an extra blanket last night just thinking about your ordeal. I also, went snow-camping ONCE, but it was accompanied by a girlfriend with a Swedish surname and we managed to stay REALLY warm!
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nice to know, those Swedes know how to make a good cop of coffee. mrs Olson?