Winter Camping Symposium ’11: Part One


The official kickoff to the cold season has arrived!

If you didn’t make it to the Winter Camping Symposium this year…rest easy. We busted our very humps sprinting between as many of the workshops, seminars and activities as we could, all to bring you a toboggan-load packed with winter camping goodness. Pull on your bread-bag liners, get on your boots, and let’s jump into this.


We’d arrived to YMCA Camp Miller on Thursday night, but activities had already begun. Among them, a full-immersion course on Wilderness Living Skills that had lasted nearly a week!

With the wooded acreage of the camp serving as both classroom and campgrounds, legendary author/instructor Mors Kochanski shared his wisdom with about a dozen people. Knowledge of plants, cold weather clothing guidelines, and primitive shelter building were just a few of the topics covered.

Mors Kochanski discusses how an Army surplus parachute canopy can aid in shelters.

Kochanski’s perhaps most popular book has been Bushcraft; a veritable Bible of outdoor skills. I grew up with a copy of it in the house, where I’d spent hours poring over Kochanski’s information-rich drawings outlining fire-building technique, shelters, and axecraft. I was not a little bit grieved that I couldn’t attend the course. Mors is a never-drying well of knowledge; one participant later told me that Kochanski was often the first to rise and the last to retire, constantly sharing resources and answering questions. [We are hoping to retrieve more photos from this course, so check back here later this week.]

Not pretty, but pretty warm: A 1-person shelter using cattail sedge, pine boughs, bent willows and insulative wrap.

Sunrise on Friday morning was our warm welcome, however. The day’s schedule was largely reserved for workshops and courses requiring several hours each. So, what’ll it be: making beautiful, useful things all day for the coming winter? or learning vital skills on foot, with the oaks, pines and lake as a backdrop?

Yup—we went for ‘em all, and got enough of each to share with you.

Anyone who chose the Basic Land Navigation workshop, chose well. Instructor Lucas Will knows a thing or two about finding his way around; weeks ago, the guide completed a 1,200-mile circumnavigation of Lake Superior.

Lucas Will sketches a topo map in an outdoor orienteering exercise.

Will first spent some concentrated time with the class on compass and map reading, from the basics on up the finer points. Using topo maps of (what else) the grounds of Camp Miller, they then put it all into practice and stepped outside. Lucas led the group as they took bearings and eventually ranged out and away from the camp structures.

The long lodge at the lakeshore, hosted not one but two workshops.

Ian Andrus, with a completed black ash basket.

On one end, North House Folk School alum Ian Andrus led a group in creating Black Ash Pack Baskets. The yurt-dwelling Andrus is a model of self-reliance in the woods, and the care he shows for natural materials and utilitarian, yet beautifully-crafted items, clearly shows through.

Though time-consuming, each step of the class’ progress we observed seemed an extremely gratifying tactile experience. Having a pair of Ian’s finished baskets along served as a pretty good carrot, too.

On the other hand, a true education on knives was being shared. Woodworker Jarrod Stonedahl led a workshop on creating crooked knives—and no. That is not a typo. What a crooked knife is, is a nomadic tool (also known as the mokotagan) dating far back in North America. Used in carving snowshoes, canoe paddles, even birch bark canoe frames, it’s extremely versatile. Think Swiss Army knife, but probably way better. And probably not Swiss. Participants here walked away with history, technique, and a mokotagan of their own making.

Jarrod Stonedal demonstrating carving technique. It's okay, you can try this at home.

Greg “Burnie” Burns oversaw the Snowshoe/Paddle Dip again this year. It was cool to see that more people have come to anticipate this workshop; a clear sign of this was the sight of a Winter Camping Symposium logo that someone had ‘tattooed’ onto their paddle. And just as a tatt stays around for a long time, so too will all the newly-varnished wooden gear brought in.

Snowshoe Dip: BYOS.

These snowshoes have just doubled their lifespan.

Remember from last year, how DIY gear ninja Brian Maruska constructed a wood burning stove in an hour? An amazing feat, that one single hour of that one day… But you don’t actually think he stopped there, do you?

Brian Maruska and his many stoves.

In “Burning with Brian”, the thrifty Maruska led a tour highlighting all the portable stove-building projects he’s undertaken in 2011. Always encouraging a ‘why not’ experimental approach, his enthusiasm was as infectious as ever. Which was the overall favorite? Was it the portable meat smoker, made from a hot water heater? The wood-heated boiler that now permanently keeps the camp’s shop toasty warm? The mini-stove whose firebox used to be an Oberon beer keg? Or the nano-stove that’s little larger than a matchbox? You decide, while Brian goes off and builds more stuff.

Brian Maruska adds a brew to his smoker.

Brian threw some pork butt into the smoker, and then proceeded to clamp down some snowshoe frames he’d just been steaming with—you got it—another contraption of his own making. This filled out the ‘action-packed’ portion of the workshop, as Brian recruited three other able-bodied persons to quickly wrangle the wood into the jig before it stiffened. The guy just won’t sit still.

Meanwhile, a class led by Kevin Kinney (of Empire Wool & Canvas) fashioned deer and elk hide mitten shells. The work looked meticulous and painstaking. But lost in their enjoyment of making things that last, and in conversation with newly-made friends, nobody there seemed to feel so.

Making mitten shells—and making it look easy.

Afternoon saw a new (and much appreciated) addition to the WCS’s schedule: A workshop for kids! Bushcrafting legend Mors Kochanski invited the younger attendees (and anyone else who wished) on a nature hike. Clipping and handing out samples of young birch, aspen, oak and alder branches, Kochanski taught in a most tactile way. Stopping here to show the uses of cattail sedges, pausing there to discuss how pine sap can serve as a bandaid for burns, he passed on more knowledge that would be actually retained, than I’m sure most schoolbooks could in the same timeframe.

Mors Kochanski hands out peacock fern fronds to young naturalists.

Findings from Mors' nature walk with kids.

"Sedges have edges!" Kochanski employs a very hands-on approach to teaching about plant life.

This knowledge transfer continued after dinner, during Mors’ keynote presentation. His free-range teaching style covered native wisdom, winter clothing recommendations, survival shelters… even how to find some of the best possible shelter materials at the Dollar Store. Everyone left a little smarter as an outdoorsy type, and I’d like to think, a little wiser as a human.

In his keynote, Mors Kochanski discusses frugal, yet valuable, finds like this survival blanket.


Most people greet the morning with just coffee. Fred Boulay met it today with laughter as well. The well-versed winter camper is a mainstay of the Symposium; he loves to be here and it shows in his seminar on Winter Camping 101. With no small amount of humor, Fred shared not just technique and gear choices, but also things he’s learned from mistakes. In addition to discussing the finer points of hot tenting (that is, using a canvas tent/wood stove combo) he also included a handout featuring several primitive shelters.

Learning the ways of Boulet.

And what better a follow-up, than Winter Camping 102?

Michael Maruska, like his brothers, is known for his ingenuity in making (and modifying) his own gear. So if the “102″ implies a greater mindfulness towards self-reliance in this respect, the seminar is aptly named. Michael had two of his latest tent creations on hand, and dissected his pulk setup as well.

An attendee inspects Michael Maruska's pulk sled.

Where to start? The toboggans themselves were sturdy, but minimal, and I daresay, do-able. He pulled out a pair of lightweight wanigans—wood framed chests meant for storage of gear when in travel. Yet Michael’s weren’t of the traditional solid wood construction. These featured wood only on the frames and lid (which for one chest, doubled tripled as a cutting board and bench.) Stretched canvas served as the other surfaces, and metallic insulated wrap inside one of them, too. Another notable hack: a pair of boot liners had been dipped in protective rubber coating (available at Menard’s) to keep out moisture.

Michael Marusksa's storage boxes (wanigans.)

Michael’s most recent tent project was a double-walled structure, with the inner wall made from canvas drop cloth (again with the Menard’s.) Plus, the particular shape of the tent, with its generous headroom, seems particularly ideal to Michael. And to most people who bring their heads with, when camping. Awesome ideas all around; certainly too many to share here.

Michael, outside his new double-walled tent mod.

As midday approached, more folks began to trickle in, and the familiar village of white Snowtrekker tents began to spread. Yet in contrast to last year’s proliferation of portable yurts among them, this year saw a greater representation of hammock campers.

One of the first of these to arrive was John MacEntyre Allen, owner of Molly Mac Gear, a line of versatile packs and hammock camping gear. The North Carolinian spends his winters in the Appalachians, but spent this weekend with us.

MacEntrye shares his secrets of hammock camping.

His seminar, Hammock Camping: Nothing But the Soles of Your Feet Touch the Ground, was new territory to many of us. But it wasn’t hard to ‘get’ the concept of comfortable, insulated sleep, removed from contact with the snow. MacEntyre covered the anatomy of a winter hammock outfit, demo’ed how to lay in it (there is a wrong way,) and also showcased his own innovation, a gear hammock that’s, well… just that! A suspended cache for your stuff.

The clever 'gear hammock' keeps stuff out of the snow.

Pining for more? Oh, there is more. The second part of our Winter Camping Symposium report will post in another day or so. Keep watching!

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5 Responses to Winter Camping Symposium ’11: Part One

  1. Kevin Kinney says:

    Excellent write up. We’re glad you came to our shared event. Please reserve the dates for next season!


  2. Bill says:

    Hey Andy and Pam,

    Great coverage. Im sure this will inspire many to mark their calendars for next years symposium. Great pictures and commentary. Love the site.


  3. Pingback: Winter Camping Symposium ’11: Part Two | UpNorthica | Blogging about the Boundary Waters (BWCA) and all things northwoods.

  4. Pingback: Snow Camping Photo Gallery

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