Monday, April 19, 2010

Klondike Derby Lasts Nearly Until Summer

Last January I presided over our Scout district’s Klondike Derby — an overnight outdoor winter camping experience, complete with winter scoutcraft games. All Boy Scout units in the district are invited to participate. We had 39 of 68 units attend. Of the 450 people in attendance, about 70% were youth and the rest were adult leaders.

I have a love-hate relationship with Klondike Derby. Let me explain.

I attended my first district Klondike overnighter 31 years ago. I had been on winter campouts prior to that, but just with my own unit, not with a whole district. The event was held at a county campground, the same location where we held this year’s affair. But the location was far more rustic back then. Since that time, I have attended many winter camps, often camping in snow shelters.

While some adventurists go winter camping for enjoyment, that is hardly my purpose. If that were my sole concern, I would never go winter camping again. Ever. As lame as it sounds, I do this for the kids.

Comedian Jim Gaffigan quips that his parents never took him camping as a kid because they loved him. You’d think that would apply to winter camping to the 10th power. But I take youth camping:
  • To help them learn the basics of winter survival.
  • To help them find out that they can do (and even enjoy doing) something they thought was impossible for them.
  • To provide an adventure.
But it takes a lot of work. It takes an awful lot of work to go winter camping. Every time I go, I lament to my wife that it takes as much work to go on one winter overnighter as it does to go to a week of summer camp.

Everything takes much longer when participating in cold weather camping, but you generally have quite a bit less daylight. Moving gear, setting up a shelter, building a fire, preparing a meal, changing clothing, or anything else you usually do when camping takes much longer when you’re winter camping. A good rule of thumb to use when planning a winter camp is that everything you do will take three times as long; even longer if it’s windy or precipitating. Cleanup is a chore as well, because you’ve got to dry everything out before you put it away.

To some that have never been winter camping, it seems counterintuitive to think that a snow cave can provide good shelter from the elements. But a foot of solid snow can provide enough insulation to keep an enclosure much warmer than the outside, especially when temperatures plummet at night.

Despite the wonders of snow caves, I have never liked them. Six years ago I learned to hate them when I had one cave in on me during construction. Since then I have avoided spending much time inside any snow cave, although, I have helped with construction. I prefer to sleep in a snow trench. Or if there’s no wind, I like to set up right on the top of the snow. That works better if you can find a spot that has some kind of natural wind break. But I have found that many Scouts crave the adventure of camping in a snow cave.

Getting back to this year’s Klondike overnighter, some lament the lack of participation by the 29 units that didn’t come to the event, but I’m not unhappy with the turnout. Finding a venue that can handle that many winter campers, most of them camping in show shelters, is problematic. The venue must:
  • Be big enough to accommodate the group.
  • Be accessible by vehicle.
  • Have adequate parking.
  • Have decent annual snowfall.
  • Be relatively close to the homes of most campers.
  • Not be too expensive.
  • Have low avalanche danger.
  • Be able to be reserved months in advance.
Despite the extensive outdoor recreation possibilities in my area, there aren’t many venues that meet all of these criteria. The venue we use has its problems as well. Almost every year when these problems are noted, I tell those complaining to find me even one other place that would work. They always end up perplexed enough to conclude that we picked the right place.

Another possibility — and one that would be more in line with Leave No Trace principles — would be to split up the event. Instead of inviting all of the district’s units to the same event, several smaller events could be planned throughout the winter. Each event could be for two or three zones so that 15 or fewer units would be in attendance at any of them. Less parking would be needed and impact on natural resources would be more dispersed.

The problem with multiple small events is the coordination effort. A volunteer staff would need to be recruited for each event. Those that work with volunteer organizations know that this can prove difficult. Perhaps an even greater challenge is the cultural shift. One of the reasons that some attend these events is for the camaraderie of being around hundreds of others that are pursuing similar goals. (Of course, there are those that stay away because they dislike big camping events.) Fewer units can also mean less keen competition. Still, the dispersed Klondike is something that I will encourage district leadership to consider.

Last Saturday also brought home another thing I dislike about Klondike Derby. Saturday was the BSA’s national day of service. My son’s unit went back up to the site where we held the Klondike overnighter to do some cleanup. There was still too much snow to clean some parts of the venue, but other parts were relatively clear of snow.

While most units strictly obeyed the rules on having fires only in raised fire pits and hauled out their ashes, a few dunderheads built fires right on the ground and left their ashes. Although vegetation was scarred, none of these fools succeeded in starting wildfires. Scouts — and especially Scouting leaders — should know better. It steams me when Scouts mistreat camping resources. We cleaned up their messes and hauled away the ashes.

The worst offenders were other users of the area, which is groomed during the winter season for cross country skiing. These fires were never near the remains of snow shelters. They were always adjacent to the ski trail and were almost always littered with beer bottles. I suppose it may be too much to ask of the general public to follow the Outdoor Code.

We still have one more major project next weekend to do some rehabilitation and summer season prep work at the campground where we held Klondike Derby. And then we put the event to bed until next fall when we start getting everything ready for next winter’s event.

Although I have been winter camping for years, I still have a number of years left to go winter camping with my kids before I can hang up my snow gear. I delight in the adventure this provides. But I hate doing it.

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