Heading High(er) For Some Snow Camping

My last dog, Kuma, was a Northern Breed (predominantly Karelian Bear Dog).

Picture of my old dog, Kuma, a Karelian Bear Dog
He Was A Very Good Boy (Pic circa 2003-4)

When he was in his prime we played and camped in snowy conditions regularly.

My last dog, Kuma, in the snow above Tahoe City
In The Snow Above Tahoe City

With Willow being a shorter-haired sun and heat enthusiast I have substantially cut back on my normal winter camping schedule. To keep both of us on our toes we decided to practice our snow camping skills with the added bonus that the vast majority of people (including those who consider themselves “campers”) do not want to be anywhere near where we are hoping to end up, at this time of year, in these conditions. Granted, this is not going to be a deepest, darkest winter, snowed in, regularly below freezing experience. I can handle that. I love and appreciate my 13 year old dog too much to subject her to those conditions for three weeks. I was planning and expecting this to be an early spring, mid-elevation, gentle workout.

Wanting to find some new spots we looked towards the Mendocino National Forest east of the Highway 162/Covelo turnoff from 101 that we have driven past literally hundreds of times without ever once exploring that area from that direction. A couple miles past downtown Covelo is the Forest Service office which was, unsurprisingly with COVID-19 still in play, closed. They did though have their information boards populated with the latest Forest Service bulletins regarding road closures and fire restrictions as well as maps and several printouts of campsites in their district. As always we have absolutely no desire to camp in a developed campground, parked on a concrete slab, within rock tossing distance from the next concrete slab. Instead we traditionally search for a suitable spot within the Dispersed Camping category. We saw three options in that category but only one of the printouts or the website had any information on the altitude and we were looking for “high…er” than the stated 3300 feet at the Lower Nye Campground. We ended up finding each of them on an online map, grabbing the Lat/Lon info (if given) and then entering that info into another online tool that produced the elevation at that point. This is where I need to vent just a bit at the absolutely amateurish, incomplete and inconsistent information given on individual pages, even within the same National Forest Ranger District. Some give neither location or elevation data. Some give just the coordinates and leave it up to the user to figure out the elevation from that. Some give the latitude and longitude of the campsite as well as the elevation, as they should. And then, there are the pages that show the coordinates in more than one place…and neither those coordinates or their format match! Here are screenshots of those three dispersed campsites:

Lakeview Campground website screenshot
Zero Location Or Elevation Data
Lower Nye campground webpage screenshot
Elevation (Good) But Inconsistent Coordinate Data And Format (Bad)
Grizzly Flat Campground webpage screenshot
No Elevation (Bad) As Well As Inconsistent Coordinate And Format Data (Bad)

Not one page on the website offered up my Holy Grail of both elevation data and accurate, consistent coordinates. Absolutely lame and non-detail oriented and only making it harder for the public to find the information they are looking for. Plus, if an organization does not utilize their website to make information easy for the public to find then the public will revert to using old-school methods such as a phone call to get their questions answered. From a business (and in this case a taxpayer) standpoint a well crafted website can offer a variety of useful information for the one-time cost of gathering the data and putting it in useful order and made available to the public. Typical information that most people want can be presented online once. A person on the other end of a phone (if you can even reach one) will inevitably have to answer the same handful of questions numerous times a day and cost (as a human resource line item) way more in base pay, training, benefits healthcare and pension than a simple informative website. Rant over.

As we were looking at our options one of the three was officially “Closed.” Grizzly Flats Station at 5800′, showed as open both online and on the posted info sheet so we headed that direction. 14 miles later we stopped at the Eel River Conservation camp (also Closed) which was just next to the Eel River Campround (closed as well) which was the spot you turn and head up into the actual Forest. Expecting/hoping for some snow at our destination 17 miles away we took a moment to air down our tires with the Coyote Auto Deflators which we have now used hundreds of times. From the Eel River spot you turn right (if coming from the direction of Hwy 101 like we did) and drive over a narrow bridge with a relatively steep and abrupt drop off at the end and then you hit dirt. Winding up Etsel Ridge Road for a couple thousand feet until you come to an obvious “Y” in the road and we stayed to the left which now becomes Forest Service Road 1N02 or named Mexico Ridge Road by the few locals in the area. It is steep and narrow with sharp turns and still covered with patches of snow so we couldn’t get any inertia up. Instead we just stayed in 1st and 2nd gear with our deflated tires and gently plowed (no we don’t have a snow plow) our way onward and upward through increasing snow cover.

A few early snow patches were easy enough to get through just with the deflated tires. 1000 feet in elevation further up the road we still could forge on by merely activating the Tacoma’s 4-wheel Drive System. As we continued even higher up the mountain though patches of snow became deeper and more frequent. A couple of times we got only part way through a patch and then ground to a halt and had to shamefully and carefully roll back down the tracks we had just made. When we came to a snow-free area (or at least flat) we could reset ourselves and our expectations and try again using the previously made tracks and see if we could get just a bit farther than the last attempt. Those early difficulties were overcome by judicious throttle application and a “gung-ho” attitude. Another 1000 feet in elevation gain and other measures became necessary. We still had our factory rear locker, snow chains, sand ladders/traction mats and a winch in reserve if it got that bad. Truth be told, if we found that we were in a position that we had to winch ourselves further up the mountain by numerous and repeated 100 foot winch pulls then that was going to be the “let’s just find another spot” hint. Thankfully it did not come to that but, about one mile from the campsite it became a good idea to see if our tire chains would even make any difference which was also another opportunity to practice the fitting and use of these rather new weapons in our bag of tools for the fight to outwit Mother Nature. All of an 1/8 of a mile before the indicated turn off of the M1 and up into the camping area was a downed tree completely across the road. Right before the tree was a side road which was still totally covered in snow but that the map indicated would take us the short 1/4 mile up and around to the campsite area an alternate way. With our tire chains still on we made it successfully, set up camp and decided we would deal with that downed tree later.

For the first week the only wildlife sounds we could hear were the animated chirping and twittering of a large and robust flock of “plain little birds” (and I mean no disrespect by that). Just because I have no idea what specific species they were do not mean I could not appreciate their presence. The communal vocalizations that the seeming hundreds of these petite, brown and gray, golf ball-sized little puffball beauties collectively put out into our shared space was impressive at best, slightly and sporadically annoying at worst. They were very chatty. No Corvids, no deer or other mammals, no insects…nothing else. Our days were spent hanging out in the snow-covered camp reading, relaxing and heading out on little half mile hikes to reconnoiter the area.

Willow in her sweater in the snowWe also sent up the drone to get the lay of the land.

Drone shot from around 300 feet up looking straight down on the Tacoma sitting on snowDuring times between snowy activities Willow spent a great deal of time relaxing on her bed preferably covered up with a down blanket because she’s an old lady who likes her warmth.

Willow on a raised platform bed, covered with a down blanket
Snug As A Bug In A Rug…Or So They Say

In those short interludes when enough snow had melted to uncover dirt or pine needle duff she chose to lay out and absorb whatever heat the sun and warmed ground could swaddle her in.

Willow laying on the ground in the sun
Any Rock Will Do For A Pillow

And when she’d had enough she’d migrate over to the snow for a cool down period.

Willow laying on the snow
Serious Cool Down Action

I too got into the spirit of this trip which was to test out our winter/snow camping gear. For two nights I set out my Mountain Hardware Ethereal Bivy Sack (which they do not seem to offer anymore) directly on the snow and slept in that while leaving Willow in the camper shell.

Bivy sack layed out on the snow
My Snug, Warm Burrito Sack

Inside the bivy sack is an old Therm-A-Rest self-inflating pad that I’ve had for so long I do not remember what model it is. But, it still works fine. On top of that I sleep in my Marmot Helium down sleeping bag which is the warmer of the two bags we carry with us and was needed for this exercise. All three of those items work as intended, keeping me warm and dry and have a permanent place in or strapped to my BOB backpack which is an earlier version of this Eberlestock Gunslinger.

Later, after some days of snow melt the Ground Squirrels appeared as did crows above. If you stood still and watched you could just tell that both groups were doing the proverbial “Spreading their wings” after several months of deep winter restrictions. Next to appear were talkative Jays and those species of little, diaphanous insects that just want to congregate and flit about in rays of sunshine with zero interest in the CO2 the dog and I am exhaling and no want or need to extract blood from our bodies… those arrived a week later. During the first week the crows seemed to be individuals flying and chatting back and forth. By the second week there were pairings that had happened and, while still out and about with the larger group, it was obvious that these pairs were paying more attention too, spending more time closely interacting with and performing more intricate flying and “touching” behaviors with one another.

During these thawing periods we ventured out farther from camp on hikes and came across definitive signs of the August Complex fire that swept through the area in 2020.

burnt and dead trees left after the August Complex fire of 2020
Large Areas Of The Forest Now Look Like This

Well over 1 Million acres burned. Even where we were camping there were telltale signs (burn marks on one side of trees reaching 30′ high) that a 20+’ wall of fire swept through the area. My one thought that lessens the blow of such a devastating fire is that the official cause was lightning and not some idiot camper leaving a campfire to burn out of control. For more information on the fire and restoration efforts visit this official Mendocino National Forest page: August Complex Restoration. We also went on numerous hikes in the nearby Yuki Wilderness.

Willow in front of a Yuki Wilderness sign
Another Gateway to Adventure

Besides the fire damage the one, big negative we saw was the trash left behind by one large group of scumbags.

Two large, decaying trashbags full of cans and bottles that some scumbags dumped in the forest
People Who Do This Should Die In A Forest Fire

They Packed It In, and apparently were willing to pick up the hundreds of cans of shit-tier beer they had pounded and put them in trash bags but were unwilling to “Pack It Out,” take it home and dispose of it properly. Grrrrr.

A couple of times during our stay my old Suunto watch set off its “Storm Alarm” and we could see the graph of the the pressure drop.

Suunto Ambit watch face showing a graph of falling pressure in Inches of Mercury
Time To Batten Down The Hatches

An additional glance at our weather station to check the temperature, wind speed and direction and we knew snow was going to put in an appearance.

Our LaCrosse weather station showing 24 degrees F
We’ve Been In Colder Weather But This Still Means Bundle Up

Besides dropping another thin coating of snow on whatever gear we had left outside these two supplemental snow falls also seemed to convince the awakening wildlife that “perhaps now is not the time” and, for a day after each dusting, the birds and squirrels quieted and disappeared until that new layer of snow had melted.

Snow on chair and solar panel

A few times we heard a sound we have heard before and consider to be a female fox screaming out her version of Mae West’s “Hey, big boy, come over and see me sometime.” If you don’t know what that sounds like it is a creepy AF horror show scream but apparently just an indication that love is in the air. Or I might be wrong and have no idea what I am talking about and, if so, I expect someone will let me know. The little microphone on my 4 year old Android phone does not do justice to how loud, obvious and close this animal was. This happened during one of those short spells when we are not exactly blending in quietly with the local inhabitants and were listening to music on a little Bose Mini Soundlink II speaker. The scream cut through the background sounds the Bluetooth speaker was blanketing the immediate area in and quickly grabbed both of our attentions. Turn the video on your phone, tablet or computer up loud or it just sounds like a peacock 😉

During our third week here as the weather was quickly transitioning to Springtime, the butterflies and hummingbirds appeared and we never heard that scream again.

Some serious wind (over 30mph) made a few appearances and caused numerous windfall widowmakers while we were there. Sitting, listening to the wind which is then interrupted  by the “crack” of a branch and the sounds as it pinballs down through the remaining branches of the tree to land with a “thud” was an all too common occurrence and one we hoped to not find ourselves underneath. One afternoon, around 4pm, wind howling, we heard a larger (and longer in duration) then usual “Craaaaaack” and the sound of a serious mass slamming through the branches below it. For a brief moment we looked wildly around hoping we were not in the drop zone. Relief flooded in as the falling sound ended with a solid “thud” which we could feel. Not seeing where this happened we went for a quick walk up the hill and came to the vault toilet. Laying against the side of the concrete structure was this 30′ long, 14″ thick (where it broke off), double trunk that had landed upright, missing the building by all of a foot and then leaning over to rest against it.

Large "widowmaker" leaning against a Forest Service vault toilet
Stuck The Landing

When we first arrived almost three weeks ago and were stopped by the toppled tree across the M1 Forest Service road we decided at the time to bypass it and deal with it later. After noticeable thinning of the snow and seeing a couple of people drive around the downed tree and do damage to the wet snow melt soft earth we decided that the time had come to use the correct tools we have at our disposal to clear the tree, namely the chainsaw.

For this job I started off with my Gränsfors Bruk Small Forest Axe to limb the fallen tree a bit and give me more maneuvering room when wielding the chainsaw. I also made sure to leave several branches as posts to hold the tree up and make the chainsawing process easier. Once finished with the axe I pulled those limbs out of the way to prevent tripping and got into it with the chainsaw

Tree across road, partially limbed, about to be chainsawed
Ready For The Power Tool
Tree across road with first few chainsaw cuts made
First Few Cuts Finished
Tree across road, mostly chainsawed
Progress Being Made, Forman Looking On Critically

I did notice that at higher loads the engine lagged a bit which was almost certainly because it was tuned at sea level and we were sawing at around 5700′. In lieu of making the 1/4 mile round trip walk to camp to get a small flat blade screwdriver and adjust the high speed carburetor jet I just was patient and let the chain do the work instead of powering through as fast as possible. Being gentle with the revs probably added 5 minutes to the whole job. Next time I will make it a point to have that screwdriver with me so I can adjust the jet right then and there which takes all of 30 seconds.

16 main cuts later and the obstruction looked like this.

Tree across road cut into pieces17 hand-carried loads later and we had a pile on the side of the road and out of the way.

Pieces of the cut up tree piled on the side of the roadThe road eventually looked like this with nothing that could possibly puncture a tire or rip out a brake or fuel line which I consider good enough.

Road after tire and suspension damaging tree pieces moved off itThe pieces I carried off the road were quite sappy and the t-shirt I was wearing gave its life for the cause. My gloves ended up splotched up with sap as well.

Gloves with sap on them from moving cut tree pieces
Another Reason Gloves Are A Good Idea

After we finished the main, public facing job of cutting and moving the tree (that process probably took a good, solid hour) we still had post-job maintenance to perform on our tools. A few seconds on both sides of the axe blade with the Gränsfors Bruk Grinding/Sharpening Stone got it back in good condition.

Granfors Bruk axe and ceramic sharpening stone
These Two Tools Work Very Well Together

We then moved on to checking out and sharpening the saw blade. Back at camp there was a large, downed tree that made a nice spot for this process. I pounded in my Oregon Stump Vise, clamped the chainsaw bar snugly in it and started sharpening each and every cutter tooth and filing each depth gauge.

Chansaw sitting on a downed tree clamped in a stump vise waiting to be sharpened
A Nice Little Work Bench

I use an electric chain sharpener at home but am not going to bring that on our adventures. Instead we use the Stihl 2 in 1 Easy File Chainsaw Chain Sharpener which works well enough, is self-contained and fits in the chainsaw’s hard case. I bought my sharpener years ago at a little, local chainsaw shop (Sandy Chain Saw) in Sandy, Oregon for around $32 and it was a good deal then. Now the price is ridiculous (I have seen upwards of $70 online!) and so I would suggest you not buy this at Amazon or any place else especially since I found out later that it is a knock-off of the original CS-X made by Pferd. But, I have it so I will use it as long as it lasts.

The past three weeks have certainly met our definition of “adventure.” The 40 degree temperature swings, snow, wind, “frozen mix,” and falling widowmakers all gave us a good situation and conditions to re-familiarize ourselves with our cold weather gear. Sure, there was a few times I wished I had been warmer but, regardless of the conditions, I never was wet, cold or uncomfortable. The early springtime seems to be a great compromise of conditions, access and a wonderful lack of other people. I look forward for next season to continue looking for conditions like these and enjoy some more winter camping fun.

See you above the tree line.

 

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