GERMANTOWN, Wis. — With the sun sinking fast in the late afternoon sky, the activity intensified in the winter woods.
Black-capped chickadees flitted from tree to tree, looking for food before nightfall.
A downy woodpecker rapped out a tune on a dead snag.
And a clan of two-legged, upright walkers scurried to prepare sleeping quarters and gather firewood before the sun disappeared.
“I don’t think you can have too much,” said Joe Quesnell of Oshkosh, pulling a 6-foot limb toward a growing pile of fuel. “The fire department might have a different opinion.”
A day and night without electricity — and in the elements — make humans keenly aware of the time of day.
When the 24-hour period is in early January in Wisconsin, the awareness is even more acute.
“We’ve got room for at least three under the downed tree if anyone needs a spot,” said Dan Quesnell of Wauwatosa.
The generosity of Quesnell’s offer wasn’t lost on the group. But there were other options.
“I’ve got a spot under a tarp all staked out,” said Mike Quesnell. “It’s closer to the fire. Perfect.”
Welcome to the Quesnell winter camping outing.
The 2012 edition had 10 campers, including friends and family, on the first Saturday in January.
In addition to the Quesnells, there were Russell Snopek of Fox Point, Brent O’Neil of Glen View, Ill., Bill Fontanazza of Wauwatosa, Dean Klinger of Wauwatosa, Jim Kanuth of Madison and Jason Johnston of Milwaukee.
The ages ranged from the 30s to 60. The occupations included parole officer, nurse, school principal, maintenance supervisor and surgeon.
The common ground was a desire to camp in the Wisconsin woods. In January.
Four slept under or around trees, four in tents and two under tarps.
Mother Nature provided a full moon and subfreezing temperatures but no snow.
Regardless of the conditions, winter camping in Wisconsin isn’t for the masses.
A National Survey on Recreation and the Environment found that, from 2005-09, 1.14 million Wisconsin residents camped at developed sites. About half as many camped at primitive sites.
Winter camping did not make the list. Perhaps those surveyed were reluctant to admit they camped in winter.
Klinger, a marathoner, said his desire to run 26.2 miles in a single go typically draws passing support, even if it’s not something the vast majority of people would try.
But when he told his mother he was going to sleep in the woods in January, she said, “You’re crazy.”
This was Klinger’s first year in the Quesnell camp.
“This was on my bucket list,” Klinger said.
Snopek is a veteran of the January outing. His wife, however, has yet to embrace the idea.
“This year she asked me if I had my living will up to date,” Snopek said, smiling from a seat around the fire.
Some Wisconsinites intentionally jump in Lake Michigan in January. Others opt for a winter camping rendezvous.
“I fell in the lake one spring while smelting,” Fontanazza said. “That’s cold. At least this is planned.”
Dan Quesnell, 37, and Johnston, 36, began the tradition in 1998.
Quesnell and Johnston grew up in the Bay View neighborhood in Milwaukee and have been best friends since kindergarten.
Over the years they shared various outdoor experiences, including hunting and camping.
But like most, they had never camped in winter.
While discussing plans for a January weekend in 1998, Quesnell tossed out the idea.
“Why don’t we go up to the hunting land and camp?” he said.
Johnston was game.
The outing takes place on land that’s been in the Quesnell family since the 1960s. The 30-acre parcel is covered with mature hardwoods, including maple and oak.
Joe Quesnell purchased the land from his aunt and uncle about 10 years ago. In November, they gather for the gun deer hunt.
And come early January, he opens the land for the annual winter campout.
It’s hardly wilderness — a paved road runs 500 yards from one edge of the property — but to be ensconced in the tall trees on a winter night offers a healthy dose of wildness and solitude.
As the moon rose in the east, the fire was stoked with wood. Water was heated in metal coffee pots around the fire’s edge. Joe Quesnell dished out ladles of venison stew prepared from a deer taken on the land.
The group circled the fire and told stories and jokes through the night. About 9 p.m. Dan Quesnell led a moonlit hike through the woods, checking reflective tape on deer stands and listening for owls.
About 11 p.m. the campers drifted to their shelters.
When the sun rose, the mercury read 19 degrees. Sleeping bags and tents were coated with frost.
A turkey gobbled at 7:30 a.m. as the sun climbed into the clear sky. The fire was stoked and the campers gathered for oatmeal and coffee.
Spending a night in the winter woods is sure to do a few things — increase your respect for previous generations who lived year-round on the land, provide an ample portion of fresh air and allow you to rationalize eating as much high-calorie food as your stomach allows.
“When we started, we just wanted to know what it would be like,” Dan Quesnell said. “Now we know it’s a great way to break away from the routine and enjoy the outdoors in winter.”