SI Vault
Facing Old King Cold
Bil Gilbert
March 14, 1977
You can play some games with people who are more or less all right, but for high-class freezing in Potter County, Pa., you had better find an absolutely suitable partner like Sam
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March 14, 1977

Facing Old King Cold

You can play some games with people who are more or less all right, but for high-class freezing in Potter County, Pa., you had better find an absolutely suitable partner like Sam

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Our first camp was the only one where we had normal, that is, liquid, water. Thereafter, to get a drink, or for cooking at night, we had to melt snow over the fire. Again, this complicates and extends what should be a very simple act. Also, snow water tends to taste like old leaves, and nowadays there is always the unnerving suspicion that it may be much hotter than it seems by reason of a lot of invisible particles that have wafted in from northern China.

During the day we slaked our thirsts, which were as real as if we had been packing in July, by gobbling handfuls of snow. But this never seems to put enough moisture back in your boiler. At the end of a cold day you are always a bit dehydrated, and one of the biggest rewards of making camp is getting two or three drinks of real water, even if it means boiling snow. However, whatever goes in must come out.

I once had a friend, a professor of physiology, with whom I did outdoors things. He had given a lot of serious thought to water control and was the first to tell me about and demonstrate what he called the "Sioux alarm clock." He claimed that the Sioux, by adjusting their water intake at night, could leave themselves a morning call for any desired time. He had experimented with the technique and by the time I knew him could, indeed, awaken himself within 15 minutes of a predicted time.

This is important for any very cold camper. You want and need a lot of water when you get into camp, but thereafter it is prudent to go easy. At the tag end of the brief evening, even though nothing else is standing between you and bagging it, it is well to hang around awhile, endure a little more freezing for the sake of stabilizing your water system. Nobody minds getting up too late in the cold, but the prospect of the old Sioux alarm clock going off too early is terrible.


The place where we first camped was only about a mile from the mouth of the ravine where it intersected a larger valley and a small river. However, a few hundred yards below our camp the ravine veered and became exposed to what had been the prevailing westerly wind. In consequence, the narrow gorge had become a single long drift, seldom less than five feet deep, often more. It took us more than two hours to wallow this mile. When we got out we were caked with frozen snow, half-blinded and fully exhausted. There was a strong temptation to simply lean against a tree and cry, but as usual the moisture-cold factor made this self-indulgence undesirable.

Without putting any gloss on it, we were convinced that we had more escape and therapy in drifts than we really wanted and. in truth, about all that we could endure. Therefore, we turned to our topographic map and began thinking seriously about alternatives. What immediately caught our attention was a web of snowmobile trails crossing the forest. We reasoned that even if our friends from Potato City had not been getting out much in the blizzard, these trails had probably been traversed oftener and more recently than the standing drifts and should therefore provide somewhat easier passage. We headed across the valley to pick up the nearest of these trails, and when we did our assumption proved to be true. For the next three days and 25 miles we slogged along on these sled runs. They were blown over in places but always provided better footing than the abominable ravine. Following them was easier and also gave us a chance and time to see something of the winter other than the inside of a drift.


Beside ourselves and the deer and an occasional raven that flapped by, croaking hoarsely and presumably looking for dead deer, the only creatures that seemed very active were porcupines. Now and then we would see trees where they had been feeding, gnawing away bark. We wondered and talked a little about how such a dumpy, short-legged, groundhog-like animal was able to get around in the snow. One afternoon, when a porcupine ambled across the trail to a big evergreen 30 yards away from us, we had a chance to find out. Porcupines, it turns out, get along very nicely and easily in the deepest snow. They do so by floating on it, more or less. The big quill-covered tail and the mop of coarse body hair is all extended, giving them great buoyancy. So supported, they dogpaddle with their short legs and move across the surface without sinking more than a few inches. Astonishingly, the fat, slothful porcupine handles deep snow much better than deer, which are noted for their grace and agility.

"He is all snowshoe," remarked Sam of the porcupine we watched. But the porcupine, like everything else, is far from perfect. Whether in the snow or on hard ground he is very slow of foot. Even burdened as we were, we could have overtaken this one at any time and worked whatever our will was on him. Despite its quills, which are not as formidable in fact as they are in myth, the porcupine is especially defenseless against any sort of aggression or predation. On account of this vulnerability there used to be a rule of the woods (now seldom invoked because times and human activity have changed so much) that these animals should never be needlessly-molested because they are among the few creatures so helpless that a man in trouble, lost, without tools or weapons, can catch one easily.

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