Camping in a winter wonderland

Posted March 01, 2012, at 10:19 p.m.

Heavy rain pelted our interstate caravan as it moved slowly north. We were cautiously optimistic of a fresh mountain snowpack. Over the next four days, our hearty group of 12 was headed into the woods of Baxter State Park. We hoped Mother Nature would spare us the true misery of skiing in her cold rain. Sub-zero temperatures are one thing, but a winter rain can quickly dishearten.

A few miles out of Patten the sight of snow lifted our spirits. We set out around noon exchanging jokes over lugging someone’s extra gear. Lugging a sled was offered as currency for such commodities as Pop-Tarts. There were no takers. Pulling camp supplies on the sticky snow we embarked for the South Branch Pond camping area — about 13 miles away on the park road system. The group quickly spread out as people settled into their preferred pace on skis, snowshoes or bare boots.

Some cranked up music piped through earphones as others meditated to the rhythmic foot crunching of snow. We predetermined where we would wait for each other to ensure no one lagged behind with broken equipment or injury. I like these stops because they provide a great opportunity to swap some stories and trail food. There were times when I skied the lead only to be among the stragglers, simply because I became rapt in friendly conversation or in enjoyment of the natural scenery.

The temperate weather in the mountains made for a wide range of conditions. On our second day, we traveled to Russell Pond on hard frozen snow in crisp sunshine wearing only a T-shirt and a light jacket or some variation thereof.

The temperature was barely below freezing. However, that same night, our open shelter/lean-to sleepers were regularly stirred by the snow blowing into their faces.

The morning light revealed a winter wonderland of 16 inches of fresh pack. We knew our work was cut out for us in breaking trail on that 9.6-mile day trek.

We alternated breaking trail as the strong wind whipped the snow from the tree branches, creating momentary whiteout conditions and showering us with the ice-cold fluff. Brief but intense snow showers peppered us throughout the day as we made our way surrounded by landscape that could only be described as breathtaking.

At our evening encampment, we devoured some jambalaya burritos. The last stashes of food and sweet treats came out of the packs as we huddled around the South Branch Pond bunkhouse stove again.

We retired in a swirl of strong night winds and plummeting temperature. In the morning the thermometer was in the low single digits. The previous day’s wet, sticky snow became a skiing super-highway, providing us ideal conditions for the finish.

For nearly a decade, I have considered myself lucky to be part of this group that winter camps parts of Baxter. These trips ranged from staying in the same bunkhouse or lean-to for a few days to trekking from north to south.

This year we traveled to South Branch and Russell Ponds, skiing about 45 miles during the four days.

And another great winter trip came to an end. As we parted ways in the parking lot, there was the repeated acknowledgment of “see you next year.”