I've often thought about taking the family out for a grand camping trip, and long remembered a couple of weeks in the summertime when my parents sent us to camp at nearby Merck Forest, just over an hour from home. We would spend the days exploring the 3,100 acres of land, learning to make different crafts (beeswax candles), tracking and survival skills, or cooling off with a dip in the nearby pond complete with rope swim. If behavior was not appropriate during meals in the large pavilion, kids would have to get up and sing silly songs in front of the whole camp (I had more practice in this area than I am happy to admit now). At night, we would retreat to our lean-tos and jump in the sleeping bags and drift off to sleep under the starlit sky. In fact, during one night every summer we would venture out in small groups and rough it under the open sky - I still recall the gooiest mac and cheese ever made over the open campfire. Great memories!
I came across a link to Merck Forest in the fall, and I decided to look at some dates when we might use the lands there as a family. In addition to the facilities that I remember, their website lists a number of camps throughout the property that accommodate parties of 2-15. Since we have snowshoes and the kids had vacation this week, I called the welcome center to ask about the best option for our group, and was suggested that Ridge Cabin would be a good fit of the available cabins, although a little more than 2 miles from base. With Jinho visiting his father and Emma busy with work and school, Lena, Preston and Lina agreed to join me.
Link to Merck's trail map
I have to admit that I was not exactly sure how the trip would work out. Lena did a great job of getting the food supplies and the like ready, and I was able to borrow a propane grill from a coworker. I received a camping lantern from my good friend John MacDonald years ago, so after checking that everything was in working order I knew that we were all set with heat, food, and light on the trip. Since my boss, Larry, is an avid camper, I used him as a resource. I tried to think about the experience in terms of movies I've seen, and was hoping that it would be least like Misery and more closely resemble John Candy's fun in The Great Outdoors .. minus the bear, of course!
We started packing the van Wednesday morning and everything was all set, except for sleds. Not that we were looking for some fun hills to go sledding, but I thought that they would help with transportation since we don't own "real" hiking backpacks. I I was optimistic that we would easily find a sled (I live in New England, and it's been a traditional heavy winter with lots of snow), but no place in town had any. Lena was not thrilled, but I kept hope that we'd find them along the way to the forest. We stopped by Lena's sister house, and while she had no sleds she did offer some places to stop in Manchester that might carry them. We found the last two sleds and some string at RK Miles, a lumber yard, on our second stop. How exciting, especially with the snow falling around us!
After driving to Merck, we checked in at the Welcome Center to warm up by the fire and also get some more information. They have a really neat stuffed bobcat among the organic maple syrup products and farm-fresh meat and dairy supplies. With questions answered and some trail maps, we headed back to the car to load up and move out. It was almost magically with the snow coming down, as it was warm outside (around off) and the flakes were the large, wet ones perfect for packing. With our snowshoes on and cargo loaded on the two sleds and our backs, we headed out.
After a short walk through the woods we came upon the Sap House and the barns. The sleds were not cooperating; Preston had no problems with his by mine (with the stove, plastic bin with sleeping bags, lantern, and water) kept tipping over. While it was a good laugh at first, Lena was beginning to wonder how we would manage for the whole trip, as we were just a quarter-mile into the journey. After readjusting, I decided to carry the purple bin and give up the sled to Liana. This worked ok as we made our way through the clearing to Old Town Road, the main trail that runs from the north to south on the property. I remember that it was a bit of an incline, and the staff reminded us of that. Well, the incline was a bit more than I thought, running for almost a mile up a strong incline. We had to make many stops to catch our breath, and I tried to keep the troops focused on getting to the cabin when we get there while not feeling rushed to do so.
Finally peaking the first climb, we spotted Lodge Road to the east, and made our way up another (much) smaller hill past Spruce Cabin and then down a bend to the Lodge, about 1.25 mile from base and one of few areas in this wilderness with solar power. Shortly after passing Spruce, I tied the two sleds together and pulled them while holding the purple bin, as the kids were getting winded. The challenge with winter hiking is having to walk a bit differently due to the weight and size of the snowshoes, and having to bring more supplies and clothing to keep warm. Add to that the somewhat quick changes in temperature, and going from feeling cold to sweating while covered in layers and you have some difficulties to overcome. I knew that if we worked together to solve the issues we came across and kept a positive outlook, the trip would be a success. Everyone did a great job of joining me in this regard, even though it took some encouragement to accomplish.
We continued on Lodge Road, at this point the trail was well packed and wide due to snowmobile use. Merck taps over 17,000 trees for their maple sugar operation, and as the daytime temps have been rising work has begun in order to be prepared to transform that sweet tree sap into the fine amber nectar we all enjoying on everything from pancakes to ice cream (or straight from the jug!). I was getting tired, and the trail soon became narrower, only the width of the snowshoes. The sleds worked well in this track, but with our turn onto Meyer Road and it's up and downs I passed the bin off to the other three to carry. We came across a sign indicating that the cabin was only 0.25 miles ahead. Up a hill. We mustered on, soon meeting with Hammond Road on the mountain ridge. We first saw the wood shed, and were all very excited! The only downside was that the cabin was still further ahead (0.1 miles, but I think farther) and the trail ended - we had to break our own path to get to the cabin. Which we did, passing the outhouse on the rolling glade and finally sighting our shelter for the night.
Approaching the backside from the north with the snow lightly falling, I dumped the sleds three or four times and finally dropped them, deciding that getting into the cabin and starting a fire was the highest priority at this point in the day. After opening the door we discovered our rustic accommodations, quite literally the "cozy cabin on a remote wooded ridge with great views." There was a table with two small benches underneath, wooden planks on the west and east sides including bunks on the north wall. In between was the stove, complete with a large pile of wood. I had a fire-starting square that I use in the pellet stove at home, plus some newspaper and cardboard which I used to get the fire started, then slowly added wood to get heat for our cold bodies. It was amazing that within 20 minutes, Preston commented that we went from being able to see our breaths to having the warmth require us to shed some layers.
Lena and the kids moved the items into the cabin, so we set to organizing our space. On the table was a binder with a laminated map and information to help make the stay successful (specifically hints related to the stove). There was also a notebook for hikers to tell their story, which I filled in later in the evening. I took a sled out to get some more wood, and also make a patch to the outhouse. I counted on the way back 160 steps between doors, a long walk! After a short break with some hot chocolate, I set up the stove and took the food Lena set out and started preparing dinner - cheese quesadillas and chicken-noodle soup. Everything cooked evenly and we filled up under the glow of the lantern. We then played a game of Apples to Apples and roasted S'Mores over the stove before making the last trip to the outhouse; we wore headlamps though the heavy, misty air as it settled over the woods. The sky was trying unsuccessfully to produce more snow, so the clouds prevented us from seeing the stars or moon above.
Once settled in the cabin, I put out the lantern and was soon fast asleep. Mindful of the wood stove, I woke up roughly every three hours during the night to stoke the fire. Around 3am, the clouds had cleared and the moon light was illuminating the landscape, offering a beautiful view off the ridge. I found Preston's sleeping bag on the floor due to the heat in the cabin, so I roused him enough to get it under his body for a little comfort. As we moved towards daylight, the woods became alive with the sound of birds beginning their morning routines.
We woke up around 8am; Lena chopped up some apples and mixed them with some canned peaches and maple syrup before warming them up on the stove as I got the camp stove-top ready for pancakes. Pancakes (some with pieces of chocolate) were on the menu, along with some orange juice that we brought it. A great feast to enjoy as the sun warmed the snow about us and caused the icicles displayed around the roof to begin to melt. After I restocked the wood the cabin, Liana was interested in making a snowman so we set about that task. Using some wood and stones from the ground, we formed a friend to wish us well on our journey down the mountain and also welcome the next campers.
We finished packing the cabin, this time rearranging some of the items differently on the sleds. Lena was fed up with the purple bin, so we left that behind so others could use it for dry storage. She was able to make use of our remaining string by making loops to carry the sleeping bags around our backs. Around 11am we started back for the welcome center, full of energy from a full night's rest and fueled by some great food. The green signs directing us along the paths came upon us much more quickly, partly because we were more familiar with the terrain but also because the majority of the trip was downhill. Thirty minutes to the trip I realized that I left the lantern suspended from the ceiling in the cabin; I thought for a moment about going back for it but decided that I would leave a note at the center and plan to retrieve it in the future.
We passed the tubing from the maple sugar operation, some 17,000 tabs set up to deliver the sweet sap to collection points and then on to the sugar house to be transformed into the amber nectar destined for our plates. Here is the field just south of the Lodge, just under the half-way mark of the trip home. As we rounded Spruce Cabin, we returned to Old Town Road and the very long portion downhill. As we entered the clearing just east of the barn, we stopped to chat with a couple heading into the forest on their way to the Viewpoint Cabin. Returning to the area around the farm, a horse-drawn sleigh was touring the property with visitors, and Lena stopped to say hello to some horses. A short walk from there to the car and our adventure was complete. It took over three hours to hike to the cabin, and were at the car in less than two!
I personally love to be outside and enjoy nature, with all the grandeur that God created it to contain. Lena kept telling me that I was crazy to think of winter camping, and before the trip Liana mentioned that it seemed like a scary movie, where the audience asks "why would they go out in the woods?"! While the hiking was more strenuous than I had anticipated it to be, and some of the hills a bit larger (and longer) than I remember, I am very thankful that we could embark on this trip as a means to spend time together and work together to address the obstacles that we faced.
Our trip reminded me of that narrow gate that Jesus referred to in the book of Matthew. In verses 13 and 14 of chapter 7, our Lord stated: "Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it." We are all faced with choices on a daily basis, and can choose to follow the wide path that everyone else is filing down, or we can choose to tackle a more difficult route that is lightly treaded upon. The reward, for me, in following the advice of my Savior and leaning on His strength when my own is in short supply yields a growth that the easier decisions in life do not allow. Ask someone on this trip if they feel the same, as I think we found it.