SNOWSHOE MAGAZINE GEAR REVIEW:

Garrett Conover: The The Snow Walker’s Companion and Teacher

You don’t have to be crazy to camp in the winter. You really don’t even need to be a die-hard, gung-ho adventurer. In fact, you really don’t even need to be cold. If you use the right equipment you can leave the cold outside your tent, and cook your meals over a real stove right in the same warm area you will sleep in. You can be comfortable, even when it is well below zero (Fahrenheit) outside your tent walls.

Although I had not done much winter camping since I was a Boy Scout, back in the 1960s, as my abilities on cross-country skis improved and I started doing more snowshoeing, so did my interest in camping in the winter. I took a Mountain Travel and Rescue course from the National Ski Patrol that taught patrollers how to work and camp in the backcountry. I had done some winter overnights with my search and rescue teams, both in New York and in Minnesota, with variable results. Even using a cabin (or hunting camp) was no assurance of waking up warm, once the fire went out. But I still remember one of the warmest nights I spent out was in the winter was an old, large, army-style wall tent heated with dual propane heaters, during a snowshoeing winter SAR exercise on New York’s Tug Hill Plateau.

There were three books that really opened my eyes and my mind to camping in the wintertime, two of which are now out of print. They were: “Ski Camping” by Ron Watters (Out of Print); “Winter Camping” by Stephen Gorman; and “The Winter Wilderness Companion” by Garrett and Alexandra Conover. (Out of Print) The Conovers also highly recommend Calvin Rustrum’s “Paradise Below Zero” (as do I) and the 2006 volume, “Snow Walker’s Companion” has replaced their earlier book. Both Ron Watters’ book and Cal Rustrum’s are considered classics of the winter camping genre. I was lucky and found a copy of “Ski Camping” on a sale rack at REI. “Paradise Below Zero” is available from Amazon.com and most other bookstores. Although it is out of print, you can still get “The Winter Wilderness Companion” from private booksellers, such as Ric’s Books in Elkhart Lake, WI. (Ric specializes in used and classic books on wilderness adventure, travel, exploration and survival.)

“Ski Camping” is a classic, and I was lucky to find a copy of it on a sale rack at REI a couple years ago. It is one of my favorites because it deals with skiing and camping, where “The Winter Wilderness Companion” is primarily about camping on traditional snowshoes, using traditional equipment, as is “Snow Walkers Companion”. I use both backcountry skis and traditional snowshoes almost interchangeably in backcountry winter travel, to the point that I use a universal binding on my skis that allows me to use the same footwear for both, so both books were of great help to me.

I have over twenty different books on backcountry winter camping and travel on my bookshelf. Some, like the Conover’s book, I read and refer to repeatedly. The reason is that I like their techniques so much is not because of the traditional techniques they advocate, but because those traditional skills and equipment really can keep you warmer, even in sub-zero temperatures. I first met Garrett about four years ago, right after “The Winter Wilderness Companion” was published, but didn’t have a chance to really talk with him until the 2005 Midwest Traditional Winter Camping Symposium near Eau Claire, WI, and find out some more about his philosophies about staying warm in the winter and the newest version of their book, now called “Snow Walker’s Companion.”

Back when we lived in New York, my family had a cabin in the eastern Adirondack Mountains. It was a fairly large “cabin,” with three bedrooms and a combined living room and kitchen area. It even had a small room for what could someday be a bathroom, although the real facility we used was 100 feet or so down the trail and to the right. The entire place was heated by a Franklin stove, a not-very-efficient wood burner in the corner of the living room, that would usually burn out about three in the morning, requiring snuggling deeper into your sleeping bag, getting up and re-filling the stove, or lighting it again in the morning. It also had a propane gas cooking stove/oven, refrigerator and lights. It was nice to know that no matter where in the Adirondacks or Vermont our journeys took us during the day, all we had to do was come back to that cabin, stoke up the stove and soon we would have a cozy, warm well lit place to spend the night while the cold wind whipped through the mountains around us.

What the Conovers have done is take the concept of a cabin with a wood stove, and put it on a sled, (or more correctly, a toboggan) so you can take your warm cabin with you! Back in 1995, in the original “A Snow Walker’s Companion”, Garrett and his wife, Alexandra, (his partner in writing, guiding and expeditions) illustrated how to use tradition native and northern skills and equipment to travel in the frozen north.

Basically, by using lightweight cotton 6.5 oz. canvas tents, with a portable wood stove inside, you can have a dry, warm, cozy environment without the frost, dampness or continual cold of camping in a nylon tent. In addition, you can cook on the wood stove, and hang garments that get wet on a cord suspended along the ridgeline of the tent, so you have dry socks, pants, sweaters or whatever gets damp. The Conovers also use the traditional cotton canvas anorak shell and pants favored by northern dwellers for many years before the introduction of nylon and other synthetic fabrics. Extremely durable, and very water/snow resistant, while being far more breathable than so-called “waterproof-breathable” materials, used as a shell over wool or fleece, they keep the winter traveler warm and dry.

Garrett and Alexandra Conover are not ski travelers. (They do ski, but they don’t mention it in their books.) All of their winter journeys take place on snowshoes, and traditional, classic, wood-framed webbed snowshoes are their tool of choice. In the first two books they use primarily native-made shoes made in Quebec by First Nations craftsmen. However, at the symposium, Garrett told me that they are now using snowshoes made by the well-known, 100-year-old snowshoe maker, Faber and Company, also from Quebec. To keep their feet warm, Steger mukluks (www.mukluks.com) are the footwear of choice.

I asked Garrett what has caused the relatively rapid publishing of two revisions in a ten-year period of time? In 1995, when “A Snow Walker’s Companion” was printed, there were comparably few recreational snowshoers, and even fewer doing this kind of camping. Most of the tents that were available were made out of heavier canvas for hunting outfitters and guides, and the stoves were also heavy and hard to transport. GPS was still a toy for that only a few people could afford, and the military was limiting civilian access to the navigation satellites it needed. Still, the original book is credited by many to opening people’s eyes to what might be enjoyable activity in the winter backcountry.

When the second edition, “The Winter Wilderness Companion” was published, the field had started to develop. Duane and Margot Lotig started Empire Canvas Works (http://www.empirecanvasworks.com/) in 1994 and were making tents, sleds and anoraks that were along the lines of what Conovers were using, In 1999 they also started hosting the Midwest Traditional Winter Camping Symposium, featuring Garrett and Alexandra as speakers each year. Several companies, including Empire, and Four Dog Stoves in Minnesota, were building lightweight and collapsible stoves. More people, it seemed, were discovering you did not need to be cold when you camped out in the winter.

But by 2005, copies of “The Winter Wilderness Companion” were getting scarce, and again there had been changes in the areas of gear, navigation and technique. The skills were still the same, but the tools were improving, in a “traditional sort or way.” Empire Canvas “Snowtrekker” tents, now being used by Conovers, had gone through some redesigns, and had/have a lightweight internal frame. Wood stoves had become available in lighter-weight titanium, and GPS had grown from almost a toy, to a reliable adjunct of backcountry navigation. The revisions were made, and a new publisher, Stone Ridge Press of Wrenshall, MN, (http://www.stoneridgepress.com/) put together the new edition, now called “Snow Walker’s Companion” (no “A”) which made it’s debut at the 2005 Midwest Traditional Winter Camping Symposium.

Garrett and Alexandra Conover continue to work as licensed guides in northern Maine. Their service, North Woods Ways, (http://www.northwoodsways.com ) leads over 100 clients a year on traditional canoeing and snowshoeing excursions in Maine and Canada. Last year, in 2005, to commemorate their 25th wedding anniversary, they undertook a trip that not only duplicated their honeymoon trek of a quarter century before, but also had the mission of drawing attention to the endangered backcountry of northern Maine. “Silver Winter” as they call it in their presentations about the trip, was officially known as “Winter Walk For the Wilds 2005”. Garrett and Alexandra snowshoed north from Moosehead Lake to Allagash Village, near the Canadian border, a distance of over 200 miles. The trip is an interactive experience for school students who followed the expedition via the Internet. On January 14, 2006, they will start south from Allagash Village to complete the 400-plus mile loop back in Greenville, continuing “Winter Walk For the Wilds 2006”. (http://www.winterwalk2006.org/index.htm) and “Closing the Loop.” Their highly interactive and educational website will allow students to follow the adventure and learn more about snowshoeing, winter camping and the delicate winter ecology of the Allagash region.

You can find out more about the Conovers and their guiding and educational programs at the links included above. “Snow Walker’s Companion” can now be ordered from Amazon.com, or from Adventure Publishing, by going through the Stone Ridge Press website, also listed above.