Wednesday, February 21

The Crestone Eagle is a nonprofit monthly newspaper serving Crestone and the San Luis Valley

Into the Wild: Snowshoes and snow caves

By Bruce Becker.

Anyone can do the things I’ve done if they’re willing to live the life I’ve led. ~ Fool’s Crow

Winter camping. When I was a Boy Scout, building a snow cave seemed like a great adventure. My dad was an advisor for our troop and agreed to take myself and two other boys out on a long hike on snowshoes to a place he knew there were big, deep snowdrifts that accumulated each year. 

I was 14 and had just gotten a pair of bear paw snowshoes for Christmas. Bear paws are great for maneuvering through thick brush and over snow-covered blowdowns.  

Dad always used Tubbs Maine snowshoes, which had a tail that kept the snowshoe tracking in a straight line. They worked great for him on his well-beaten trails, following his traplines for miles. 

My bear paws have seen a lot of miles over the years, and they are still as good as new, made of rawhide and ash. I prefer them over the new aluminum ones that are great for snowshoe racing.

The day was bright and blue when we started out. The temperature in the teens. I can work up a sweat hiking on snowshoes, so the low temperature felt great. It was mid-afternoon when we arrived at the huge snowdrifts that were our destination, and there was a lot of work to do. It’s important that the drift used to make a cave is on a north-facing slope, where the snow is compacted and hard.

Dad showed us where to start and we used our snowshoes as shovels to dig out two caves. While we did that, Dad quickly set several spring snares for pine squirrels, which were very abundant in these woods. Then he cleared a place in the three feet of snow and showed us his skill at building a fire, using a bow drill he made while we were digging the caves. 

Dad always made his bow drills from standing dead wood, which is always drier than wood lying on the ground. He would split out a piece for the fireboard and whittle the drill till it was round enough to use. As a backup he always carried kitchen matches that were dipped in wax and wrapped tightly in wax paper.

Preparation to make fire in the snow is critical. Clearing a space big enough that the fire won’t melt the snow and constructing a base of thick logs to build the fire on, so any melt water wouldn’t put the fire out. He used tried and true birch bark and made a tinder bundle of it with the shredded bark and smeared pine pitch on a few pieces.

Once he saw a good smoke, he checked his glowing coal, then waited for it to coalesce before tapping it out into his nest. Waiting for the coal to coalesce before dropping it into the tinder nest is key. Most beginners drop the coal into the tinder bundle immediately, afraid it will go out quickly. Drilling until a sizable amount of dust accumulates ensures the coal won’t go out. 

Using the low, dead branches of pine trees, he soon had a nice fire going. Dad then inspected the two snow caves we made and explained how to dome the ceilings so moisture from our body heat and the candle we used wouldn’t drip on us, but rather run down the sides of the cave. He showed us how to make sleeping shelves in the snow cave to keep us off the wet floor, then covering the shelves with lots of pine sprigs, then our rain ponchos, and lastly our sleeping bags.

Dusk was upon us as we finished making our caves, and the temperature was dropping fast. We all followed as Dad went out to check his snares and found we had three pine squirrels. Dad had used raisins as bait and they worked great, soft and sticky enough to poke the trigger stick through. We boiled rice and beans to go with our fat and delicious squirrels.

We sat by the fire talking and listened to Dad’s answers to all the questions we asked. I don’t remember his response when asked how he learned all these skills. I think experience and necessity were his teachers. Dad loved being in the woods. That was home to him. Every blue jay, every twig that snapped, told him something. 

When we all finally decided it was time to turn in, we let the fire burn down and crawled into our snow caves. The way the entrances were built, at an angle, and the candle that we burned inside, raised the temperature in the caves a good 15 degrees, I figure. Exhausted by the long snowshoe hike and the hard work we did, we all slept like logs.

Next morning, we awoke to a blue sky and a couple inches of fresh snow. We cleared our fireplace of snow and soon had a nice fire, this time using a match. We checked the snares and had one more squirrel to have with the oatmeal we brought.

After breakfast and with a full belly, we all asked, almost at the same time, if we could stay one more night. Dad smiled broadly, realizing he had us hooked. He loved knowing we now knew how to take care of ourselves under most any conditions. That day we explored the shady side of the mountain on our webs—that’s what Dad called his snowshoes—hoping to come across a bear den or other interesting find. 

We didn’t find a bear den, but we saw a large herd of deer yarding up through the trees. We didn’t want to disturb them and have them run off life-saving calories, floundering in the deep snow. So, we watched them and empathized with them for the hard winter life they had to endure.

In the spring, Dad took us Scouts to watch New York State wildlife biologists out in the woods performing autopsies on winter-killed deer and showed us the marrow in their bones. They explained how the color of the marrow indicated the level of nutrition in a deer. This marrow was white, signifying no nutrition. That, and freezing cold, was what put this deer down. Healthy marrow is pink and none of the deer autopsied had any pink marrow.

As we sat around our fire that winter night, we listened to Dad’s stories about white tailed deer and how smart they are. In one story, he told us of a big buck that he hunted over and over again, but that buck just seemed to disappear, until one early morning he was tracking a buck’s tracks in two inches of snow. Dad called this good tracking snow. He could determine if a deer was a buck or a doe by the track. 

Then he noticed the tracks stopped in a cluster of pines, and one big tree had toppled over and was snagged in the tops of other trees. The buck’s tracks went right up to the base of this tree. 

As Dad stood there with his thinking cap on, he ran his eyes up the sloping trunk, and standing there in the thick branches was the big buck he was hunting. This buck was so smart, he figured out he could walk up that low sloping trunk and hide in the branches on top. Dad was so impressed by the intelligence of this deer that he walked away, thinking a deer that smart would make smart babies.

After another long day, we finally crawled into our snow caves for a good night’s sleep. Next day we followed our own tracks out of the woods, content and proud of ourselves, and with stories to tell.

Bruce Becker is a flute maker, retired masonry contractor, and horse trainer who has lived in Crestone since 2005.

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