When I was first told I'd be covering the Becoming an Outdoors-Woman in Michigan event at Bay Cliff Health Camp, I was pretty excited.
I love camping and being outside - in the summer. Come January, you usually found me indoors with a book and a blanket. Any snow beyond my backyard was cold and dangerous and intimidating, because I had no idea how to properly prepare for it. So I stayed inside.
The BOW event - which offered women of all ages beginner-level winter activities courses over three class periods - sounded like a great way to break out of that summer-only prison I was in.
Mining Journal staff writer Jackie Stark takes a break from constructing a quinzhee — an outdoor snow shelter — during the three-day Becoming an Outdoors-Woman in Michigan event. (Journal photo by Matt Keiser)
I embraced the opportunity, expecting to head home Sunday with a little more knowledge about winter activities than I had on Friday. But what I never saw coming was the incredible atmosphere created by a bunch of volunteers who offer their time, their expertise and their equipment to help beginners like me navigate what was once scary and out of reach.
I took part in a number of classes over the weekend, including the winter shelters course, where a few of us built quinzhees and then a smaller few spent Saturday night in them.
Quinzhees - as I learned that day - are small, hollowed out snow structures with the tiniest of openings to crawl through.
I was feeling apprehensive when I crawled into the quinzhee that night. I had my sleeping bag, pad and air mattress all ready to go. I had a flashlight and a book in case I couldn't sleep, which I was sure would be a possibility.
I tend not to do well with tight spaces, and it's not like the quinzhee had vaulted ceilings and bay windows. It didn't take too long for the walls to start closing in, but that fear of small spaces was another reason I wanted to sleep outside that night.
I figured it was now or never time.
I laid there for quite a while, unable to stop myself from imagining the roof collapsing, or five feet of snow falling silently overnight as I slept, covering the tiny opening ever so slowly. I could feel the panic creeping in as I imagined being stuck in the quinzhee with no way out, my shouts muffled by the hard-packed snow.
I told myself that I was being ridiculous, that nothing bad could possibly happen. But I could only fall asleep by facing the opening I had just crawled through. I slept for a couple of hours at a time, waking up to adjust my body on the hard snow floor and to wiggle my toes to make sure they weren't yet frozen.
When I woke up briefly at 5 a.m., I knew I was in the clear. I felt comfortable for the first time all night and slept for another hour and a half before getting up, putting all my snow gear on and crawling back out into the wide open, glorious outside world. I stood for a moment, looking at my quinzhee.
I took a breath. I felt proud.
I had learned something that made me feel more comfortable heading outside in the dead of winter. I knew the chances of needing a quinzhee for survival were pretty much slim to none, but just knowing how to build one was empowering. The back country seemed like less of a treacherous place. I understood the snow better than I ever had before.
At the beginning of the day, sleeping outside in February felt the same as walking into an open body of water before I knew how to swim - it was dangerous so I didn't.
But at that moment, standing there at 6:50 a.m., it felt like I had learned how to swim all over again.
It was a priceless gift. And it was given in some way to all 68 women who attended that weekend's BOW event.
So I have to send a big thank you to the instructors and organizers of this BOW weekend at Bay Cliff Health Camp. It was an incredible three days, and I can't wait to go back.
The summer BOW program runs from May 31 through June 2. For more information, visit www.michigan.gov/ bow.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Jackie Stark is a Chocolay Township resident and a staff reporter at The Mining Journal. Her Saturday column, A Tad Askew, runs biweekly. She can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242. Her email address is email@example.com.