a Winter lesson

· Prayer,Bible,Life

January in Minnesota always brings to mind winter camping. In my junior year of college, I took a Winter Wilderness Leadership Class. The main focus was preparing for and safely accomplishing a week long expedition in the Boundary Waters - cross-country skiing and camping in tents in northern Minnesota. It was fun but it was mostly very challenging and demanding. The experience shaped me and taught me more than most of my semester-long academic courses did. Minnesota's below zero winters remind me every January of truths I learned that winter in 1980.

As we prepared for our expedition, we heard passing mention of our solos - which would come after the camping expedition. Our solo lurked in the future but first: we had a big expedition to complete!

The day after we returned to base camp from our expedition, we learned more about our solo. Each person walked deep into the woods and chose the site for his/her overnight dwelling - away from everyone else.

Each of us built our own quinzhee (pronounced "quanshee") - a snow fort/igloo-like thing. It's made by shoveling up a huge pile of snow - as tall as the person making it (which for me wasn't as tall as for others!). The snow pile is then left for several hours, allowing it to compress - one can actually hear it settle. Then the person carefully scoops the packed snow (starting from the outside - forming a little tunnel - to the inside to form a tiny room). Each person then crawled through the entry of his/her little dwelling and immediately punched a hole in the roof for airflow. Then someone on the outside blocked the entrance in with snow to keep warmth in for the night's stay. By then it was very dark outside. And there would be no getting out until morning.

I can remember as if it was yesterday - crawling through my little entry - leaving my boots at the door opening and hearing the snow packed into the entry and my leader saying good-bye. I'm sure he said all would be well - but I don't remember that part!

And my solo night began.

I had my sleeping bag, some food, my journal, and a candle. I probably had a flash light (I don't remember anymore!) but I know I had a candle because I still have the stub of it in a little jar with memory-reminders of that week. I lit it right away and stuck it into a tin mug of snow. It's hard to describe how that tiny flame lit up that tiny space and shone off the snow. It provided light and - surprisingly - warmth! We were told that would happen - but to experience it!

The space was just long enough for me to lay out my sleeping bag - on the snow floor! - and climb into it - fully clothed (complete with my down jacket and hat and scarf!). But very soon, it warmed up just enough to sit up in my bag and nibble my supper, sip my tea, and write.

Sadly, I don't have my journaling from that trip - I think it had to be submitted with my coursework. How I wish I could read what I wrote that night.

But I clearly remember the sense of my smallness - of being by myself in a sleeping bag within a shell of icy snow - in deep darkness - in a remote place - in a deep forest - in a huge northern Minnesota wilderness - in 20 degrees below zero. The good thing about the temperature was that it meant no animals were likely to be foraging about. They were sheltering, too!

I wondered what my quinzhee looked like from the outside with the glow of candle through snow. I felt safe - like being in a womb.

I know I wrote long into the night - reliving and processing our just-completed expedition. There had been no time or energy to write while on the trail so it was good to put pen to paper and remember details:

the weight of my backpack and the warmth of my wool pants and melting snow to drink and the gliding of skis through snow and the early mornings and the early dusks.

The final zip of the tent each dark night (a small protection against the dark and the forest). The unzip each brilliant morning to the frozen Minnesota wilderness - and in between - the exertion: the stretching of muscles and straining of bones - the camaraderie of companions and the silence of of the woods - and the barren expanse of each long lake to cross - and the steeps of the portages (over which we carried our skiis up and treacherously skied down - paths made for canoeists in summer not skiers in winter). And the sense that this would never be over: I went to sleep last night in a tent - I woke today in a tent - I will go to sleep tonight in a tent. It seemed endless but it was only a week!

Just a short week of my life that stretched me beyond my strength and taught me that my inner-woman could do more than my outer-woman knew was possible. I was made to do hard things.

And to see beauty.

I recalled little beautiful things - when I had had eyes and ears and energy to notice them: a pinecone, the glow of fire embers, a snowflake on my mitten, the muffled sounds of voices, the crunch of food, the call of birds, the zip of my jacket, the stars overhead, the warning of storm clouds, the sip of soup, the crunch of snow, the sweetness of the little tent, the howl of something in the woods, the smell of coffee, the essentialness of rationed water, the crackle of our fire, the layers of flannel, the footprints of animals, the huge silence, the noise of each cracked branch, the labor of breathing, the vapor of my breath, the sense of our group being together but each being alone.

I finally stopped writing and tried to go to sleep - with the candle still lit even though I knew that wasn't safe. But I feared blowing it out - being in utter darkness. I finally did blow it out knowing that the danger of a fire was more than the protection from darkness. I remember laying there in the darkness - in safety.

The darkness and the quietness of that night were like none I've experienced before or since. Overwhelming and comforting all at once. No light to switch on - no one to call - just my little self in the deep forest. And completely safe.

As I look back over the years, that solo night reminds me of two abiding spiritual truths that have strengthened me many times in the dark:

  • Even the darkest dark is not dark to God. No matter how dark it seems to me - I am safe:

"If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall cover me,

and the light about me be night,'

even the darkness is not dark to you,

the night is bright as the day,

for the darkness is as light with you."

~ Psalm 139:11-12

  • God is THERE to be my refuge from ALL fears and dangers. One of the ways I rejoice is by taking refuge in Him - that kind of rejoicing is not a feeling - it is a knowing - knowing I have a REFUGE:

"Let the righteous one rejoice in the LORD

and take refuge in him!"

~ Psalm 64:10a

As GK Chesterton said: "There is at the back of all our lives an abyss of life, more blinding and unfathomable than any abyss of darkness." (quoted in Defiant Joy by Kevin Belmonte - p. 118)

On that solo, I learned that I am never alone. And that there is nothing safer than being in my refuge.

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Me at the doorway of my quinzhee - still in the scooping out phase:

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The trail gear for two expedition groups:

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One of the huge lakes we traversed:

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Another lake:

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One morning:

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A long way to go!

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One of my fellow-travelers - who became my life's partner on our real expedition:

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