This past Nov. 7-9 I traveled to Fairlee, Vermont to attend one of my favorite events of the calendar year. The Snow Walkers’ Rendezvous (SWR) is a weekend focused on non motorized human winter travel, be it assisted by snowshoes, cross country skis, or dogsleds. This year, it sold out again, when it reached its limit of 100 people. I was fortunate to be in the company of my wife Marcia, and my Appalachian Trail friends Bad Influence ( Mark) and Birdlegs ( Michelle), who was able to find a bus from southwestern New Hampshire that brought her over to the Green Mountain State.
The setting for the weekend is a fine one, on the grounds of the Hulbert Outdoor Center , a decades old historic camp on the shore of Lake Morey.
A number of folks also camp out in the field behind the main meeting hall/dining room, and this year there was an impressive array of tents, most with little stove pipes jutting away, some occasionally puffing a tell tale cloud of white smoke that indicated that the occupants were toasting away inside. In the past we have stayed in one of the half dozen heated cabins, but this year we were the guests of BI and his wife Katie at their farm in Straffod, VT, a brief drive away.
After arriving and signing in, we made it in time for supper. Just as we came into the entrance, BI and Birdlegs were just about to walk across the driveway. The four of us were on the commuter package, which included three meals in addition to the modest registration fee. After a period of schmoozing at the tail end of the wine and cheese hour , I was able to reconnecting with various traveling friends. Next, we enjoyed our dinners and found our seats for the Friday evening program.
Willem Lange kicked off the event with a reading from one of his books. Mr. Lange has published several audio recordings and five books and has received an Emmy nomination for one of his pieces on Vermont Public Television. In 1981 he began writing a weekly column, “A Yankee Notebook,” which appears in several New England newspapers. He’s a commentator or host for Vermont Public Radio and both Vermont and New Hampshire Public Television. He’s the real deal, and his presence and tales embodied the rugged and individualist lifestyle of the Yankee. Since coming home, I have purchased one of his books.
Willem was followed by Bill Pollack’s and his slide show/talk “ Skiing with the Cree”. Bill has a company, Tuckamor Trips, that leads people on low tech winter adventures in association with the Cree First Nation working out of Moose Factory, Ontario. Bill is a retired forest engineer, who has spent over 40 years traveling and working in the Eastern Canadian wilderness.
The last program of the evening was “A Tribute to Native Guides”, by Kevin Slater. Kevin is co-owner of Mahoosuc Guide Service. His literature indicates that, “Mahoosuc ( Guide Service) is unique in that we make much of the equipment we use on our guided trips, such as cedar canvas canoes, ash dog sleds and maple paddles. We have traveled extensively in the north with the Cree and Inuit and many of the techniques we use for north woods and tundra travel were developed by them. We employ local Native guides on all our Canadian trips. If you are interested in more than just a superficial look at Native culture, come with us. You will leave our trips with a deeper understanding of and appreciation for the Native culture by living and traveling with Native guides from the area who grew up in eeyoustis (the bush) or nuna (the tundra)”.
Kevin’s talk was a heartfelt ramble that featured slides and personal stories about several of the beacon light native guides that he holds in true respect. His presentation was bittersweet. Kevin is very concerned about the possibility that many native skills may be eventually lost, as majority of the adult children of several of these guides have not expressed any interest in carrying on the guiding lifestyles of their parents.
Saturday was a huge day of information, stories, and fodder for later grinding within the winter cud. There are so many excellent presenters at Snow Walkers’ that the one morning and two one-hour afternoon blocks each have multiple offerings that you are forced to chose between. After breakfast, I passed up “Snowpack Dynamics” and Craig McDonald’s “Trapping with the Diamond family at Opasatica”.
My first choice of the day was the computer-assisted presentation by Craig Lawrence, “Dogs and the Outward Bound Experience”. Craig is from Ontario and has for the last four years managed the dog sledding program for all of Outward Bound Canada. Since 1986, Craig’s paid career has been with raising, training, and running sled dogs. He has even prepared dog teams for the Iditarod. His is a year round life. Even in the dry land months, Craig trains dogs. The photos he showed us of dog teams dragging All Terrain Vehicles around the wilderness trails were most impressive. We were given fascinating details of even the special foods these dogs require while on the trail ( melted chicken fat).
Next came the morning break where I checked out the extensive array of items that were on sale from vendors. There were axes, tents, packs, snow shoes, woolen clothing, books, stoves, ice chisels, mittens, hand carved rings, staves and more, most of of a design and quality that are not generally available elsewhere.
I then had to plot my strategy to win a door prize. One of the more exciting practices that are a part of the weekend is the SWR door prize tradition. Each vendor, and a number of attendees, donate door prize items that have ranged in value from a quart of Vermont maple syrup to a new winter tent ( worth close to $1000). In fact, two years ago I was one of several people who had persuaded Roger Lee to first attend the event. Roger and I shared his tent in our 2006 February traverse of Moosehead Lake. He ended up winning the grand door prize, a 4 person Snowtrekker Empire Canvas tent complete with collapsible inner pole set up.
There are dozens of door prizes. They are placed on a long table on the side of the dining room with a plastic container in front of each door prize. Each registrant is allowed 5 small slips of paper that we put our names on. You then have the masochistic pleasure of deciding which prize, or prizes, you want to gamble on. You can put just one slip for each of five items, or can increase your odds by placing all 5 slips in one container. It is sort of a chess game strategy in trying to win. If you want a big item, such as a gift certificate for a $200 pair of Steger Mukluks, put all 5 of your slips in there. The downside is that these big items are the very things that most everybody else wants, so they put lots of there own slips in too. One year, Marcia won a brand new Ibex woolen jacket that listed for $230 in their catalog. I have ascended into the winners’ circle these last two years by throwing all my slips in front of less popular items. Last year, I won a hard bound copy of The Navigator of New York ( read my review ). This year I walked away with an antique, tiny, cast iron fry pan. I Googled it when I arrived home and learned that was made between the years 1935 to 1959, and is worth somewhere around $30. I have re -seasoned it and have already used it on the kitchen wood stove a couple of times to fry up some eggs. I wonder where it has spent it’s prior life? If it could talk, could it present at Snow Walkers’ next year?
Next came the Tour of the Tents, this year guided by Kevin Slater. It is an annual event, where people mosey around the field, and stop at representative styles of tents where the owner speaks to the group, relates the pros and cons of the tent , and takes questions. I have a video here where I take you around and look at a few of them:
Then came home made soup, sandwiches, and salads for lunch, more vendor visiting and door prize lust, and choosing from two more afternoon workshop blocks.
I attended Alexandra Conover’s “Winter Travel- Connecting more Deeply with the Natural World” presentation. Alexandra is a force. The main theme was that the heart can be viewed as an organ of perception, a finding that is tied to writings from plant spirit medicine. It was a challenging presentation for me. The best part of the presentation was focusing our attention on the dried fir cones that we each were given. The fragrance was intoxicating and did connect me with images of a world outside of the room.
No doubt, The most interesting event of the whole weekend was Allan Brown’s live action, firefest entitled, Torching the Tents”. I will link here to Tim Smith’s account of this event, taken from his own blog, The Moose Dung Gazette. I also have two videos of a tent burning. The first one introduces Allan Brown and his rationale for toasting a complete tent. Background. Just at the point where the fabric starts to flame, the batteries in my digital recorder failed. The second video captures the moment we all had been waiting for, and was taken on my backup digital camera.
After a brief break of more tea and snacks, I wrapped up the last offering of the afternoon by attending Tim Smith’s outdoor presentation on “Axmanship & Firebuilding- Core Skills of the North”. Tim is an experienced survival, bushcraft and outdoor living instructor.
A full-time guide and survival instructor since founding Jack Mountain Bushcraft in 1999, he splits his time between Wolfeboro, New Hampshire and Masardis, Maine. Tim is an excellent, humorous, engaging teacher and I encourage the reader to visit his website, which is unusually well done for this type of thing.
Tim took a large group up into the woods behind the outdoor center and taught us details of choosing standing dead trees that I have learned no where else. For example, he told us to be be sure choose an absolutely straight dead tree. Every degree of lean of the dead tree converts to additional moisture that migrates into the wood of the tree, reducing its effectiveness for fire building. Tim taught axe safety, specifics on felling technique, and finer points about to making whiffle sticks for kindling/fire starting. Taking Tim’s workshop made me realize that I want to learn more skills from Tim. I even sent Deb Williams and Tim requests for Tim to attend next year and for him to consider offering a longer workshop.
One presentation that I am sorry I didn’t attend was the screening of the new John Walker Canadian film “Passage”. This film brings to life the infamous story of the Franklin Expedition, focusing on John Rae. The landscape ranges from Scotland’s remote Orkney Islands to the landscapes of the Arctic. Looks really good. Credit Deb Williams again for her work, as she was able to have a copy of the DVD for multiple screenings this weekend. I passed on them, thinking I could buy the DVD when I got home. Wrong. The DVD is being produced by the national Film Board of Canada and will not be available for sale in the US until Spring 2009.
But how much info can a man take on in one day? Sheesh, was I beat by this point, I was relieved to just sit and take it easy and enjoy the evening’s dinner. The food here is excellent, wholesome, freshly prepared by experienced cooks.
Following supper we heard from Kieran Moore, who is an excellent storyteller. I have heard him present once before and am amazed at the wilderness experiences this man has endured. This time his slide show/talk took us back in time to the 1970’s in the Northwest Territories where he worked harvesting logs and fashioning them into municipal log buildings. The was the time that preceded ATV’s and much of his harvesting was with sled dogs, and his mode of travel from job to job was via mushing a sled dog team hundreds of miles through the frozen unpopulated wilderness.
I went over my list of participants from this year and was pleased to see that I know or have traveled with 30 of these folks. I have found it very difficult ( and some years impossible) to find people who will actually get outside on snowshoes and live in a tent for multiple days in the middle of the winter. Once, I had lined up three companions to do a trip with me only to receive at last minute cancellations from all of them when it was time for the frozen pedal to hit the icy metal.
This year, my association with Snow Walkers’ folks will likely allow me to take three trips during the span of February to early March. More about those itineraries later.
Snow Walkers’ Rendezvous allows anyone to hang out and learn from some of the most experienced winter survivalists and foot powered travelers in North America. For those of you who would like to gain more skills in this area, consider attending the upcoming Winter Skills Day– Saturday, January 10, 2009 for a day of pre-registered workshops. Next year’s Snow Walkers’ Rendezvous will be the weekend of November 13-15, 2009.
See you there?