On January 3, 2009, my sweetheart Marilyn, our friends Susan, David, and I, set out for two nights at the Black Mountain Cabin in Jackson, NH. This cabin, which sleeps eight, (we’d invited more adventurers, but all had declined) is owned by the White Mountain National Forest and rents year ‘round for $20/night (ww.recreation.gov).
We spent, literally, months planning this adventure—since planning is part of the fun. With everything packed, checked and double checked, we got an early start and arrived at our favorite breakfast place in the Mount Washington Valley, Bea’s Café (603-447-4900), at 7:30. We gleefully over ate at Bea’s, picked up some trail passes for Jackson Ski Touring, whose trail system runs near the cabin, and were at the trailhead before 9:00.
There’s always time lost at the trailhead, putting on fresh socks and winter boots, strapping skis onto packs and getting packs and snowshoes on. But with no surprises to slow us down, we were climbing the moderately steep trail by 9:20. Each of us carried a full winter pack, while I also towed a small, homemade pulk (a sled with a rigid pulling harness that attaches to the waistbelt of a backpack). We wanted extra comfort and the price for that was hauling a heavier load. Since the trail is only 1.3 miles, and we had plenty of time, the go-heavy strategy made sense. We certainly could have traveled lighter and faster. For more on winter packing choices see Pack or Pulk?
As anticipated, it took much longer to reach the cabin on snowshoes than it would have in the summer. By shortly after noon, we were having lunch in the cabin. We tried to start a fire with the scraps of wood left by previous campers but the woodstove just smoldered and smoked.
While Susan and Marilyn cleaned up the cabin and organized our food and gear, David and I set forth with a light chainsaw and the pulk to gather enough wood for the night. There was plenty of dead and down wood within two hundred yards of the cabin; in short order we’d cut up and transported the downed top of a dead maple (burns long and slow), and a fallen spruce (burns fast and hot), both easily split with the small axe we’d brought.
We also found a flowing spring and collected enough water to get us through the evening. The snow at the cabin was deep and dense and we planned on melting it for water in a big pot on the woodstove.
By sunset, the temperature outside was headed to near zero, and a wind we estimated at 40-50 m.p.h. was clawing at the exposed north wall of the cabin. We had to bolt the door (the bolt was missing so we improvised) to keep the wind from blowing it open. A real winter night!
Pleasantly tired, we settled in with the lanterns throwing out a soft glow of light. The stove was blazing, with a big stack of firewood at the ready. The bunks were made up with thick foam pads and warm winter sleeping bags.
David and I played cribbage (not easy, wearing gloves), sipped wine and nibbled smoked salmon, while Susan and Marilyn heated stew for dinner. Sure it was cold, but the fire was blazing and should soon, we thought, start warming things up.
Life seemed pretty darned good at that moment. We didn’t envy anyone in the world.
The Comfort Conundrum
We’d come prepared for cold, with plenty of clothes, plenty of food, warm sleeping bags, and weren’t in any danger, but we’d hoped for a degree of warmth. That’s why we’d rented a cabin with a woodstove.
Heating an uninsulated cabin takes time. The frozen stone chimney didn’t draw well. It took us until 3:00 to get the fire really blazing with the dry wood we’d cut. By dinner time, we’d had the stove roaring for a couple of hours, the cabin should have been getting warmer.
Even with unlimited dry wood and the stove throwing all the heat possible, the cabin started cooling off as the sun set. It was cold as we ate diner, and colder after. Our planned evening of cozying up to the woodstove in comfort wasn’t happening.
So we turned in early. With zero-degree-rated mummy sleeping bags and plenty of dry clothes, we’d be warm and cozy . . . no matter how cold it got.
Marilyn had trouble falling asleep and kept the stove loaded until midnight. Susan, David and I each got up at least once in the night and kept the stove going full blast. By morning it was still below freezing in the cabin. Getting out of the warm sleeping bags to start the day was tough.
We ate a huge, breakfast (oatmeal, eggs, bacon) and took a snowshoe hike just to get the blood circulating. Our plan for the day was to ski from the cabin, but, with the weather turning colder, and the wind rising, we decided to retreat while we were still having fun. So we packed up, left the next tenants a clean cabin and neat stack of dry wood and headed down the trail.
Our only mistake was psychological. We prepared for cold but sabotaged ourselves with the hope of warmth. If we’d been expecting just cold, we’d have been fine.
Sometime after our adventure, The White Mountain National Forest added this paragraph to the cabin descriptions: “Special Winter Warning: This is an uninsulated log cabin. When renting the cabin in the colder months expect winter conditions and be prepared with winter gear. The temperatures inside the cabin can often mimic the exterior temps. Be prepared for a camping trip, you can just leave the tent at home.” All true.
Despite a degree (no pun intended) of the unexpected, everyone had a wonderful time on our shortened trip. Marilyn and Susan are urging David and me to take them camping in my woodstove-heated Kifaru tipi, which I know from experience can be heated faster than a cabin. Sounds like fun to me!