June 25, 2018
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WCCC prepares students for winter camping

By Brad Viles, Special to the News

If you want to learn the techniques and skills to lead people safely into the outdoors for adventure, you need to go to school. In Maine, that education takes place in a locale that’s rich in natural resources, just made for adventure.

There are rivers, lakes and the ocean nearby, and within a two-hour drive, mountains. The school is Washington County Community College in Calais. The Associate in Applied Science degree in adventure recreation and tourism is perfect for students who love the outdoors and are heading for careers in leading others to enjoyment of the resource.

When your workplace is outside, that means in any weather, across any terrain. The students have a technical, lengthy curriculum that includes acquiring water-based skills in kayaking, whitewater canoeing, sea kayaking, scuba diving and sailing. Those skills are acquired in season on the water, since the majority of the learning takes place outdoors.

The course work varies with the season from the water, to rock climbing in fall, and during winter, mountaineering. In winter they still go outdoors for most of the course work, only it’s to receive instruction in dealing with the conditions winter can throw at you. Then, they climb Katahdin.

During the weekend of Jan. 29-30, I joined the students on their winter camp in preparation for their Katahdin trip. It was a way for their instructor, Scott Fraser, to assess their gear, physical conditioning and teamwork skills. In addition he would be instructing in avalanche safety and other winter skills. It would be a full weekend. The instruction began just before we left the parking lot of Cobscook Bay State Park in Edmunds, a short drive from the school.

“Is everyone comfortable?” Fraser asked the group. The air temperature was in the teens and about half the group answered in the affirmative. Then Fraser continued, “Because if you’re comfortable now, you have on too many clothes. Take a layer off before we start, otherwise you’ll be stopping later to do it, then you’ll be holding up the rest of us, while we wait, getting colder.”

After everyone adjusted their layers (while we moved to keep warm), we skied off. Some of the students were hauling sleds, while others were carrying everything they needed in backpacks. There were nine students — four women and five men ranging in age from 19 to 29, and all are in their first year of the program.

Second-year students passed the winter camping semester last year and aren’t required to participate in this overnight again. As part of their leadership coursework this semester, though, the second-year students will be responsible for guiding an individual up Katahdin. Last year it was me.

As we left, one of the students took the point and another hung back with me and took sweep. While we skied around the packed and tracked roads of the campground, we maintained a steady pace. Every so often, Fraser would hold up the lead group until those of us in the rear could catch up. We never got too far apart.

We took a break after about an hour of skiing through the dark spruce and fir forest that presses hard against the shore of Cobscook Bay. As we snacked and took a water break, Fraser informed the group of their progress. “We’re making a pretty good pace,” he said. “If you’re not drinking water, you should be. Eat a snack and let’s move again in five or 10 minutes.”

The sun was dimmed by a thin layer of clouds by the time we pulled into our destination for the night, Broad Cove. We had skied about 4 miles, according to Fraser.

“We’ll camp on the top of the hill,” he said, as he pointed to the top of an open field. “Where the snow is untrampled is where we’ll build the quinzhees. So avoid packing the snow there until we start to build. We’ll have plenty to build with.”

Then, he had the students buddied up in “triads” to start construction of the quinzhees, where they would spend the night. A quinzhee is basically a snow dome that you hollow out to crawl into to sleep. After a few directions from Fraser, the students began shoveling snow into a pile. About two hours later and an hour before sunset, the snow piles had grown from nothing to more than 6 feet.

“OK, everyone, you have to wait an hour for the snow to consolidate under its own weight before you start digging out,” Fraser said after checking their work. He had them stick small branches all over the outer surface of the quinzhees to determine the wall thickness so the diggers inside the pile would know where to stop. The walls would be about a foot thick after all the hollowing-out was done.

While the students were building their structures, I set up my tent and Fraser dug a shelter for himself, a coffin-size snow trench that he covered with a tarp and staked out with ski poles and skis. Just before dark, a skier arrived, Dan Cohnstaedt, the principal of Calais High. He had notified Fraser previously that he would join the group that afternoon in advance of being led on the Katahdin trip.

It was dark when the students were cooking supper. While they were cooking I made the rounds and met them all. There were Lisa Leighton, Jenni Heisz, Jess Kowalski, Liz Gilman, Garrett Gonzales, Tyler Walker, Joe Verduzco, Steven Day and Nathan Hammick. None had spent a night in a quinzhee before that night.

We all turned in eventually and after a night where the temperature dropped only to the teens, woke to have breakfast. The next day the students would learn avalanche assessment, rescue, roped travel and a full day of the other lessons they would need to accomplish their main goal of climbing Katahdin in winter. They’ll need all their education in skills and one more element: good weather. Thanks to the curriculum taught by Scott Fraser, they’ll have the skills to deal with everything the mountain can throw at them, including the weather. They know how to build a quinzhee, for one.

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