MARQUETTE - Campers in the summer deal with mosquitoes and black flies. Campers - or should we say students - in Northern Michigan University's RE 356 Wilderness Stewardship class didn't let a little weather event like the polar vortex keep them from experiencing the outdoors.
Lindsay Bean was lead instructor for the class, which included three instructors and 11 students. The group left NMU Jan. 2 and returned Jan. 10, spending time at Tahquamenon Falls State Park.
RE 356, Bean explained, is a field-base course that focuses on outdoor leadership and teaching, with students completing assignments, writing in a journal and taking a final exam.
Northern Michigan University students Gary Wurtz, front and Brett Karnitz are ready for winter travel during the course. (Photo courtesy of Lindsay Bean)
"Students are learning necessary skills to lead others in similar settings and conditions," Bean said. "For most of them, this is their first time winter camping, so they gain experience and skills in that area as well."
Bean said the course runs every winter during the same dates, meaning they've dealt with frostbite and other cold-related injuries. However, they occurred during relatively benign weather, she said.
"We were able to recognize early signs and symptoms and take action before any serious problems occurred during this course," Bean said. "It's really a testament to that group of students. They really did a great job of taking care of themselves during some intense weather."
The polar vortex is a prevailing wind pattern in the Arctic, which made its way to parts of the United States in recent weeks.
Bean said the evening and morning temperatures were consistently around 10 degrees below zero, and at times were probably near 25 or 30 below with the wind chill.
Yet, despite these frigid temperatures, everyone stayed warm, Bean said, because they had adequate footwear, a down-insulated jacket, synthetic long underwear and many pairs of mittens and gloves. Bean also noted they planned for an intake of 3,000 to 6,000 calories daily.
The students, she said, prepared for the course in November with a meeting about clothing, equipment, expectations and other important things to know. They were given a detailed and strict clothing equipment list, not surprisingly, although the university provided most of the bigger items like sleeping bags, cook stoves, sleds, collapsible shovels and tarp shelters.
That kind of preparation, though, can go only so far. Bean said the students also had to have a physical form completed by a doctor and complete a mile-run fitness test.
In early December, an overnight "shakedown" took place on campus to make sure everyone's sleeping systems were warm enough, Bean said.
Once outside during the course, it helped the class made good use of the environment.
"Snow has excellent insulating properties," Bean said, "so snow shelters can make sleeping in subzero temperatures quite comfortable."
If that raises doubt in anyone's mind, Bean pointed out a snow shelter, or quinzee, with three people inside can easily maintain a temperature above 10 degrees, almost no matter what the weather is outside. It wasn't all just mere survival, however.
"We also spent a lot of time running around, playing silly games and going for snowshoe hikes to keep our activity levels up and stay warm," Bean said.
The participants had expected to return Jan. 11, Bean said, but the heavy snow load was breaking off live tree branches, which were falling around them, "so we booked it out of there a little early."
Michael Brines of Petoskey, a senior majoring in outdoor recreation and leadership management with a minor in art and design, was one of those participants.
"What brought us all together was a passion for the outdoors and a willingness to learn under demanding conditions," Brines said.
The stewardship course, he stressed, embodied this ideal. During the harshest times, it was bone-chilling cold and the steady wind brought an endless load of snow falling onto their stoves, food and homes, Brines said. However, during the calmer periods, the participants were rewarded with blue skies and sparkling white fields.
"I witnessed some of the most breathtaking landscapes during these periods and I listened to the sound of silence," Brines said. "I will always remember the peacefulness of those moments, when the whistle of a bird or the creaking of trees cracked the stillness and set my senses ablaze."
Despite the unique wilderness setting, the students still had to watch out for each other as well as view the local flora and fauna. Bean said inherent to the challenges of winter camping are self- and group-awareness skills, with students learning to pay attention to their bodies and look out for each other.
Although he had immense appreciation for the beauty of the surroundings, Brines said he will never again take for granted fresh drinking water, a warm fire, dry gloves or a place to sleep where snow and cold can't find him.
"It was in trying times like those when I realized how thankful I was for the other people by my side, making something challenging, fun and exciting," Brines said. "They are now all my friends whom I respect greatly, and I think they will agree when I say that the winter stewardship changed us all for the better."
Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.