Spring Camping, Snow Included

What do you do when winter just won't let go? Elizabeth Eilers Sullivan and her family hole up in a cabin in Minnesota to wait out snow season’s last gasp.

May 14, 2013
Outside Magazine

Winter camping in spring, or spring camping with snow? In Minnesota this year, it could go either way.    Photo: Elizabeth Eilers Sullivan

It's May 3, and it's snowing again in St. Paul. Mother Winter has had her way with me this year. She has humbled me with her tenacity. In short, I am done with the cold.

The first snow here came on December 9, much later than normal, and it has been snowing ever since. It's not the quantity of snow that has been hard to handle—at 67 inches, we're only slightly above our 54-inch average snowfall–but the constancy of it. We've been bundled in parkas, crusty banks of snow rising waist high, threatening to become permanent, for as long as I can remember. On April 22, with a foot of new snow on the ground, my four-year-old asked, “Is it time for Elf on the Shelf to return already?" He was right. It did look more like Christmas than a few weeks past Easter.

My family and I had planned a winter camping trip to Grand Marais: We would ski in to a teepee in the wilderness. But six weeks ago, on the first day of spring, I checked the forecast : -14 in Grand Marais, with a high of 2 degrees. I'd been excited to get off the grid, lead my family out of cell range, away from home and city streetlights, to sit around a fire cooking fish pulled from a hole in the ice. But it was simply too cold to take a two-year-old and his three older brothers into the backcountry overnight.

This is the part of family adventures that no one talks about: Knowing when to make the hard decision and call it off. Knowing when the risk outweighs the fun and the experience. This was not the spring for cutting new trails or camping out.

We were considering holing up in a heated lodge instead, when my good friend, Anne, called and invited us up to her cabin for spring break.

“I'm not sure what it's like up there or how far in the plows will be able to get us,” Anne said, “but it will be fun.“ Count us in.

Most people in Minnesota have gone to a cabin, have access to a cabin, or own a cabin. I grew up going to our cabin every summer, and weekends in the winter after skiing at the local ski area. Those are some of the best memories I have: bare feet and the freedom to run to the water, explore the woods, make a fire, catch a frog, and just be lazy and bored. A cabin four hours north of the Twin Cities, with plenty of access to the outdoors but warmth at night, seemed like the perfect way to celebrate what we hoped would be the end of a long, stubborn winter.

Park Rapids, Minnesota, still features an old-fashioned main street where cars park in the middle, facing the way they intend to go after leaving their stop. It has small restaurants, old-timey grocery stores, churches, and two independent bookshops. Anne’s A-frame log cabin is situated on a birch-lined dirt road on the shore of Lower Bottle Lake, 12 miles northeast of town. When we first rolled in, the sound of snow crunching under our tires immediately relaxed me.

We spent our days sledding down hills, having snowball fights, stacking wood, and tracking deer and rabbit prints in the fresh snow. Woodpeckers echoed through the still air, and we spotted flocks of geese, a trio of deer, and bald eagles' nests. Once we exhausted ourselves outside, we would head indoors to warm up by the roaring fire and play board games and read; the boys would go to “their” loft, an upstairs with a ceiling just high enough to admit kids.

While we may not have been camping in the backcountry like we'd planned, it was much better than freezing in a tent. One night after the boys were in bed, my husband, Peter, and I lamented the short-sightedness of previous generations who failed to pass on land at Cape Cod or Deer Lake. If we ever got a cabin, we decided, we’d do it differently.

By the third day, the crusted snow beneath us began to melt, giving way to spring streams and melting, waist-high drifts. To avoid sinking into the snow, we began crawling like lumbering bears on top of it. On trails, I walked through the slush but avoided the shin-high puddles my boys dove into with their winter boots. They crouched down and peered into the stack of firewood where the chipmunks disappeared, discussing what chipmunks might eat as they carried one log after another into the cabin, replenishing the hearth.

On the last day of our visit, I lay in a snow bank and sunbathed, soaking up some much-missed Vitamin D after a winter full of cloudy skies. I closed my eyes and felt the cold chill beneath my back, the firm wet snow like packed sand. Nearby, I could hear my boys sledding, the sound of their boots on the snow giving way to the squelch of mud.

And for a moment, two seasons merged at the edges, hovering between the release of winter and the emergence of spring. Sleds were schlepped happily back up the hill, and birds chirped overhead as a gentle May breeze whistled through the air.

Filed To: Nature, Camping

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