LAKE BRONSON, Minn. — With daytime temperatures near 45 degrees, it wasn’t exactly a polar expedition, but nine students from Heritage Christian School in Karlstad, Minn., spent two nights recently winter camping at Lake Bronson State Park in northwest, Minnesota.
The state park near the town of Lake Bronson is about 80 miles northeast of Grand Forks.
According to Jon Eerkes of Karlstad, the winter camping excursion was the “capstone event” for the Christian school’s Outdoor Education Class. Eerkes, who teaches the class as a volunteer, is a land steward for The Nature Conservancy in northwest Minnesota.
The camping excursion, which began Thursday, Feb. 16 and wrapped up Saturday morning, Feb. 18, was several weeks in the planning for the four girls and five boys in grades 7 through 12, Eerkes said.
The students spent nine, 1½ -hour sessions learning camping and basic survival skills to prepare for the adventure, he said.
“The heart of this course was my desire to see more kids experience the outdoors,” Eerkes said. “In terms of faith, I see the outdoors as helping kids connect with their creator. In terms of personal growth, these outdoor experiences help encourage independence, self-esteem, a sense of accomplishment and an ability to face and overcome difficulties.
“In terms of my career with The Nature Conservancy, I realize that unless people experience nature and create good memories as they experience, they will never care about its welfare.”
All the planning in the world couldn’t have assured the balmy weather — by February standards — the students and their four chaperones encountered during the trip. The crew set up three shelters, and the mercury the morning of Friday, Feb. 17 dipped to a mere 25 degrees and rose to 45 by that afternoon, Eerkes said.
The campsites at the state park’s Two Rivers Campground also offered good shelter from the wind, he said.
Learning by doing
Winter camping provides what Eerkes describes as a “complex environment,” presenting different problems in different situations.
The weather served up a perfect example. The students might have trained and prepared to encounter dry, cold weather. Instead, Mother Nature delivered cool, wet conditions that required a different approach to staying comfortable, Eerkes said.
Unlike most schoolwork, there isn’t necessarily a black-and-white, right-or-wrong answer when it comes to the problems encountered while winter camping.
One student melted his boots, Eerkes said; another melted a pan in the campfire.
That’s part of the learning process.
The students also had to prepare their own foods as part of that learning process, Eerkes said, with a menu “balancing taste, nutrition, ease of preparation and ease of transport.”
Not just beans and hotdogs, in other words.
“Everyone had different answers to this problem, and some worked out better than others,” Eerkes said.
The philosophy of the Outdoor Education course and the trip was to let the students face the problems they encountered in the wild and come up with their own solutions, Eerkes said.
“The chaperones were there to keep the kids safe, but we were going to allow them to make mistakes and allow the students to learn from them,” he said. “They could also improvise new solutions — one student used a safety blanket to create a reflector oven to help dry out their wet socks and mitts quickly.”
The camping trip kicked off Feb. 16, when the crew arrived at the park, unloaded their gear and made the three-fourths of a mile trek to the campsite; the kids had to haul all of their equipment, Eerkes said.
Afternoon was spent setting up camp using lean-to tarp shelters.
“We had a lot of snow to dig,” Eerkes said.
After supper and devotions, the kids did some nighttime sledding on a run that was illuminated with LED lights. They also spent some time stargazing, Eerkes said, learning about constellations and other objects they could see in the night sky.
The students spent the next morning eating and doing camp chores such as chopping wood and drying out wet clothes and gear. A noontime hike to the Visitor Center for lunch ensued, as did a snowball fight along the way.
The local chapter of the Minnesota Deer Hunters Association donated the fee for renting the Visitor Center.
The day also was ideal for ice fishing, and the students caught a few fish that afternoon in Lake Bronson, Eerkes said, including a keeper northern pike that became part of the evening’s menu.
The day concluded with a hike back to camp for a short trapping demonstration followed by supper and evening devotions.
“Most kids seemed tuckered out and hung around campfires before hitting the hay,” Eerkes said.
Saturday morning after breakfast, the crew broke camp, cleaned up the campsites and headed back to civilization.
The camping trip offered a mix of work, fun and learning. Winter camping forced the kids to work together to stay warm and comfortable, and nature — not parents or instructors — provided the incentive to do that, Eerkes said.
“This made it easy for me as an instructor,” he said. “I didn’t need to badger the kids to get something done. All I needed to do was inform them that after sunset, everything would get a lot harder to do.”
The trip went about as well as a trip with nine students of varying ages and skills can go, Eerkes said.
The kids heard wolves and coyotes howl at night, went sledding in the dark, learned about stars, ate fish straight from the lake, enjoyed some heated snowball fights and experienced the magic and camaraderie that goes with sitting by a fire.
There’s something, after all, about a campfire. …
“Winter camping definitely brings about some discomfort and challenges, but my constant theme to the students was that most everything desirable in life requires some adversity, and the best things in life are usually hard,” Eerkes said. “No one got hurt, and everyone had a lot of fun. Even though most of the kids said that they probably wouldn’t do this again, all of them said that they were very glad they did it.”