Posts Tagged With: Illinois

Cold Weather Prep

Part of the selection process for choosing Backcountry workers is an oral interview with a Backcountry program staff member. Just like a regular job interview, this helps to weed out people whose ambition might outpace their ability to live and work in the Backcountry. One of the questions I was asked in my interview was “What are the harshest conditions you have ever been through?”

My Illinois upbringing gave me an edge on this one.

Not only did I grow up outside of Chicago, a Land of Ice and Snow for half of the year, but I thrived outside in those conditions. I walked everywhere I went until I was eighteen, even in the dead of winter. Drifting snow or sub-zero temperatures did not matter. If I wanted to get somewhere, I had to walk.

I lived a tenth of a mile too close to the high school to ride the bus for free. A student had to live 1.5 miles from the school to ride for free. The bus stop was on the corner just west of our house, literally three houses down. Kids right around the corner from us rode the bus for free. We protested to the school, but they showed us the bus route map. There was a circle drawn with a radius of a mile and a half from the school. Our house was just inside the line. I mean, if we had Google Earth back them, the edge of our lot would have been just on the edge of the line. My parents couldn’t believe this. They tried driving the shortest route from our house to the high school. It was definitely 1.4 miles. We didn’t have a lot of money, and the bus was going to cost us ten dollars a week. My parents were on the verge of caving in and scraping up the extra forty dollars a month when I told them that I was fine with walking. They asked me, “What about when it rains? Or winter?”

“I’ll just walk.”

So I walked. Everywhere. All the time. In all weather.

I learned how to layer. I had a letterman jacket for a winter coat. (Yes, this non-athlete earned my numbers, JV letters, and varsity letters. I played tennis. I pretty much just had to show up and give it my best. But I came by those letters honestly!) I learned how to layer thermals, flannel, and a sweatshirt under the jacket. I had an insulated camo hunting cap with ear flaps that folded down. In sub-zero temps, I learned that a scarf wrapped around my face was essential. You’ve heard of ‘brain freeze’ from eating very cold food? Without the scarf, I had ‘throat and lung freeze’ just by breathing in the Arctic air. With the scarf, my breath would warm the wool. This would preheat air that I breathed in.

One very frigid winter the temperature dropped to -20°F. Add a stiff wind to that, and the wind chill made it -60°. Nobody was moving anywhere, because cars were not starting. Then my Mom ran out of feminine hygiene product. My Dad and I buddied up and hiked about five blocks to the local White Hen Pantry. That was one cold day!

If that wasn’t enough outdoors activity for me, I also signed up for the Eskimo Unit for gym class every time it was offered. We would suit up with sweats over our gym suits and head outside for the snow. It didn’t even matter if the snow was still coming down or not…we went outside in it! Even when the temperatures dropped below freezing, we would go out for 40 minutes, anyway, and throw the ball around, run around, and make some contact. Everybody else thought we were nuts, but we reveled in our ruggedness. The harsh conditions helped to keep the class on the small side. We always had enough people to field two teams, but there were never so many people that anybody was left out of the action. And that made all the difference.

And if all of that weren’t harsh enough conditions, I lived for a Round Lake winter in a house with no heat.

I moved out of my house one summer after high school when my Mom and I were having some serious differences of opinion. I rented a room at Mark Rhodes’ house. I had a job, and paid Mark’s mom, Angie, room and board. Angie was divorced and money was tight, so the extra money was a help to the family.

There was an Illinois law that said the utility services could not shut off utilities for non-payment in the winter. I believe this is a compassionate law. However, the law also said that if utility services were cut off in the summer, they did not have to be reconnected in the winter.
Money being tight at the Rhodes household, Angie had let the natural gas bill lapse. She still had electricity, which operated the lights, stove, and water heater. (Electricity and gas came from two separate companies.) We had no gas when I moved in, and were never able to get it back on before winter set in. This turned out to be an advanced course in layering. Lotsa blankets. Thermals. Layers of clothes. We knew it was getting cold when our breath fogged inside. And then when we started getting frost on the inside of the windows. I remember Angie frying up huge skillets of potatoes and sausage with Mark, his little brother, and myself huddled around the electric stove for the heat. There were two nights that winter that got so cold, everybody in the house spent the night at other places.

So when the Backcountry program recruiter asked me about harshest conditions, I aced that answer. Thank you, Illinois!

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Who Goes to the Backcountry?

What makes a person apply to the California Conservation Corps’ Backcountry Trail Crew Program? What kind of people volunteer to go live out of a backpack for six months, doing back breaking labor, with a crew of people you did not know before the season started? What prepares a person for this kind of adventure?

There is no one size fits all answer. We are people who love adventure. We are people who love the outdoors and want to experience the outdoors in a bigger, more immersive way than we had ever thought possible. Outside of those basic traits, we are people who are hard to categorize. Some of us come from the inner city, have never really experienced the outdoors before, and are only one step ahead of serious trouble without a significant life change. Others are rural raised who want to test our outdoors skills to the limit. Some prefer rock music. Some prefer country. Some prefer hip hop. And we are everything in between.

The one thing I know for sure is my own background that took me to the Backcountry. I think there are a couple of factors that led to my volunteering for a Backcountry trail crew. I grew up in a semi-rural area, and spent a lot of time outdoors. I was challenged by reading in history of people overcoming difficult circumstances. People like the pioneers as they drove their wagon trains west through the plains and the deserts. People like the Army veterans enduring frozen Bastogne, and the Chosin Reservoir. I wondered if I might be made of the same stuff as they were. I grew up thinking that the military was going to be my ticket to this adventure and self-discovery, but that was not to be.

I grew up in Round Lake, Illinois. We were in Lake County, between Chicago and Wisconsin. We lived on the border between the suburbs and ‘the country’. Many people in Round Lake commuted to Chicago or the ‘real’ suburbs for work. Our part of the county still had dairy farms, corn fields, and orchards. We lived in neighborhoods, just like the suburbs, but we didn’t have sidewalks. We were also lucky enough to live close to plenty of open spaces. I lived less than a mile away from my favorite open space haunt…The Ridge.

‘The Ridge’ was a general term for an open space south of Long Lake which covered a lot more than just the ridge. It was over two hundred acres of swamp, rolling pasture, and a huge hill. A creek flowed south out of Long Lake. The creek left the lake through a marsh. A steep hill rose quickly from the marsh. The creek cut through the middle of the hill, leaving a steep ridge on both sides of the creek. The ridges were covered with deciduous trees, mostly oak. The Ridge had two main trails. One followed the crest. The other circled all the way around the base. Connecting trails between the crest and base were few.

Between the ridge proper and the nearest homes on Villa Vista Way was a big field we called ‘the cow pasture’. We never saw any cows on it, and the grass grew tall enough in it to prove that domestic animals no longer grazed there. The cow pasture was relatively flat with some gentle rolls. From the trail at the base of the ridge, you could see across the pasture to the houses on Villa Vista. An occasional scrub oak or crabapple tree popped up here and there around the pasture.

This was my playground through junior high and high school in the late ’70s and early ’80s. If I wasn’t building World War Two airplane models or playing board wargames, I could usually be found out on The Ridge. My best friend Jerry lived at the end of Villa Vista, on the edge of the cow pasture. Ridge adventures usually started at Jerry’s house. We played a lot of Army on The Ridge in junior high school. By high school we had been bitten by the Lord of the Rings and Dungeons and Dragons bug. I read about the Society for Creative Anachronism. The SCA was a group of people who enjoyed dressing up in medieval garb and role playing the adventurous and glamorous parts of medieval life. (Reenacting the plague, for instance, was not so popular.) I read about the rules the SCA established to guide play acting sword fights and tournaments. By the next weekend we all had our makeshift swords and shields, and were running around the ridge bashing on each other with lumber.

My first non-family camping experiences were out on The Ridge. The Ridge did have another local nickname, Reefer Ridge. If you talked about camping on The Ridge, people assumed it was for partying, but that was not the kind of camping we did. We would have a fire, and a boom box with a stack of cassette tapes, sleeping bags, and munchies. Great times.

The Ridge was even a winter playground. We didn’t head out as often in the winter as we did in the summer, but we did explore the snow covered woods. We learned how to move through deep snow drifts and avoid hypothermia. There was a great sledding hill across the creek and past the ridge. The crowds would go to Hart’s Hill. We had our own private hill.

One day after high school, my friend Mark ‘The Barbarian’ Rhodes and I were talking at my kitchen table. We were talking about the wilderness and camping, and how much fun it would be to take off to the woods and never come back. We called it a ‘permanent camping trip’.

My Mom was listening in to the conversation, and said that it sounded like a great idea. She told us that we had better do something like that pretty soon, though, because once we got settled in with careers and families we would never have the opportunity again.

Mom’s advice was definitely on my mind when I headed for California a few years later, and ultimately, the Backcountry. The Ridge was my training ground for so many of the things I was to achieve on a Yosemite Backcountry trail crew.

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