I spent the last few days alone in the woods.
I was camping on a rise of conifers in northern Wisconsin, a spot I discovered years ago while grouse hunting. It's an area I call the Cathedral. I borrowed the name from one of my favorite writers, Gordon MacQuarrie. He called a rise of conifers that he discovered in northern Wisconsin while grouse hunting the same.
If you're making your way by foot this time of year, snowshoes are required. As are a good amount of resolve and a layering system that allows for the quick ditching of clothes. Put simply, pulling a sled through heavily crusted snow is a bitch. The progress I made was largely thanks to increments and incentives of my own invention: Counting my steps in groups of 17, for example, seemed to speed things along, as did "Make it to that next birch tree, Johnny, and it's Snickers bars for everybody!"
Well, I made it to that next birch tree. And the one after that. And so on. Until finally it was time to turn off-trail and push through a rolling pincushion of sled-snagging maples. Eventually, they gave way to the rise of fir and balsam and pine. To borrow again from MacQuarrie, the Cathedral took me in.
Camp sets up quickly in the winter; meaning your tent, your situation, your supplies. For the first few hours, anyway, there's little time for dicking around. Stomp out a spot for the tent, get it up, get your gear inside. You do it as quickly as you can so you can move on to a more important matter: the business of fire. Although actually, the busy-ness of fire might be a more accurate description.
They say you should gather three times more wood than you think you'll need before striking a spark. I say that's cutting it close. I collected some dry birch and cedar bark from fallen trees on the trek in, so getting the fire started wasn't a concern. But man, keeping it fed! A new fire, especially in the winter, is a hungry fire.
Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.
But eventually. Eventually. You'll find yourself with a good bed of coals. You'll have dried your gloves. You'll have a pile of wood and a place to sit and a single bottle of Dogfish Head 90-minute IPA that you sledded in, weight be damned.
On the edge of the fire's glow, you'll see your tent protecting the barest of necessities: a tiny camp stove, tomorrow's breakfast, an embarrassment of goose down. You have tropicalia music that you'll play through your phone speaker at dawn like a transistor radio. You have a candle lantern and a bag of jerky and the solitude of the outdoors.
Everything you have with you has a purpose. Everything earned its spot on the sled.
As we move into a new year, I'm hoping to carry that mindset forward. I don't need more things – I just need the right things. I don't need more undertakings, more accomplishments, more checks added to my list – I just need the right ones.
Taking a look over my shoulder, I've come to realize that I've been pulling an unnecessarily clumsy load. It's time to tip the sled and start over. It's time to think in terms of fewer, but righter, things.
Happy New Year everyone.