While certainly a challenging pursuit, there also exists something distinctly exciting about sleeping out under the stars in the middle of the winter. When done properly and in a prepared manner, camping out in the winter can be a fun experience.
Over the years, I have spent well over a hundred winter overnights, in temperatures that registered well below freezing. Mt. Ranier, Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, Aconcagua and more locally, Mt. Washington and Mt. Katahdin have on more than one occasion fully tested my training and resolve. I remember one particularly long evening, sleeping in the bed of my pickup truck at the Abol bridge parking lot, when the temperature (with the wind chill) sank to 65F below zero.
All of these adventures serve as testaments to the critical importance of being fully prepared for the winter environment, well before heading a field.
To say that I have been completely comfortable on every night I have spent outside in the winter season would be a lie; however I have never felt like I was ever in any danger of frostbite or hypothermia during any of these excursions. Proper training, mental attitude and gear matched to the environment are all keys to having a successful winter camping outing.
First winter camping experiences should be conducted in close proximity to home or a vehicle, incase temperatures plummet and someone gets dangerously cold. Miles from civilization in the middle of the Maine wilderness is no time to find out that a sleeping bags thermal rating is inadequate and that someone is hypothermic.
I cannot stress enough the importance of having good quality gear that is suited to the environment. Most critical, a synthetic sleeping bag rated to -20F and a waterproof bivy sack to protect it from the elements. While down is lighter than synthetic, down is worthless when wet and in Maine’s fickle weather, eventually it will get wet, despite best efforts. With this exact set-up, I have thrived in every type of extreme weather and temperature I have ever faced from freezing rain to ice storms and blizzards.
Once skills develop, winter camping is a great way to explore vast areas of the state by allowing sportsmen the opportunity to set up remote camps and hunt and fish from these locations. How exciting to wake up already at your favorite ice fishing hole or snowshoe far into the backcountry to hunt coyotes and then simply camp for the night, not having to worry about returning home before nightfall.
After thoroughly practicing winter survival skills, experienced winter campers will enjoy an overnight stay at Elsemore Landing (DeLorme’s The Maine Atlas and Gazetteer (MAG), Map 35, B-3). This primitive campsite, accessible by snowmobile, allows ice fishermen direct and early morning access to Pocumcus Lake. Anglers can then choose to fish the salmon rich eastern shore of Pocumcus or head further north into Junior Bay (Map 35, A-2) and West Grand Lake (Map 35, A-3, A-4). Snowmobilers planning to travel into Junior Bay and West Grand Lake should use extreme care in crossing the body of water between Pocumcus and Spring Cove. This narrow gut called the “Throughfare” rarely freezes solid, even during the coldest winters, and many snowmobiles have plunged through the ice here over the years. Play it safe and only cross through this area by following the snowmobile trail that hugs the left hand shoreline next to the Throughfare camps.
If looking for an adventure not quite so “cool”, consider renting a lakeside retreat and fishing from the comfort of a heated cabin or ice shack. Many of the lodges that advertise in this magazine provide fine accommodations at modest pricing. If looking down east for a chance to potentially score a record book togue this hard water season, consider staying at Greenland Cove Cabins (Map 35, B-3, B-4) in Danforth, located on the shores of pristine East Grand lake. In talking with 13 year owner Weston Lord, he is predicting that 2016 will be yet another stellar year for harvesting lake trout, keeping in pace with the previous several years. Fishing regulations on the lake, limit the daily harvest to one togue over 18 inches, a practice that has allowed the lakes population of lake trout to grow to enormous proportions.
In a typical weekend, Weston says it isn’t unusual to catch several 8-10 pound togue and lots of “smaller” fish in the 4-5 pound range.
When fishing for togue, make sure to rig tip-ups with plenty of backer line, as depths on East Grand can easily exceed 100 feet. Suckers, sea run smelt and large golden shiners all work well when fishing for this aggressive trout species, just make sure to bring plenty! Also, ice anglers will typically encounter a high level of success with jigging. The classic Swedish Pimple tipped with a large sucker or other dead baitfish being a good solid choice. East Grand Lake opens to ice fishing on January 1st, so make sure to call ahead if planning a cabin stay as accommodations go fast!
From my own personal experience, in staying at lake side cabin and ice fishing, no equipment is more critical than having boots that easy to slip on and off. Muck boots and similar footwear, lacking lacings, make runs from the cabin to the ice much easier. When returning from the outside, nothing is quite as nice as having a set of slippers back in the cabin, to make sure the walk back to the card table isn’t interrupted by an accidental step in wet snow and slush.