OPERATION SNOW DOG: 06-08 FEB 2004
On Friday, Feb 6th, 2004, several militia persons deployed to Camp Stasa in Central Michigan to conduct our annual weekend overnight winter survival drill, and to test several new pieces of equipment. The idea behind this annual event is to make sure that we can survive and function under adverse winter conditions. This is a chance for us to find out what works, and what doesn't. We found out a lot.
The plan was simple, at least as far as Thumper and I were concerned. We left my house at about 1800 hours on Friday evening. By my estimation, we should have had camp established in the back at Camp Stasa no later than 2130-2200 hours. We initially planned to use two large white winter camo tarps to set up a couple of larger improvised field shelters. Road condition or not, we planned on gearing up the sleds, strapping on the new snowshoes, and ditty-bopping on back to set up camp.
Friday: There was no ditty-bopping that evening. I strapped on my newly-acquired Glock 17, in a drop holster. (I was new to this sort of holster, and messed up in where I looped it. I have since learned where and how to situate the holster in relation to my belt, belt loops, and suspenders.) The gear got loaded on the sleds okay, and the snowshoes seemed to fit, and we headed off, pulling our gear behind us. Glockmaster9, with some hi-tech snowshoes and no sled, made a beeline across the field, wearing his pack. Shortly into the approximately half mile walk, I removed my snowshoes because the snow was really only a little over ankle deep, and in this case, the snowshoes seemed to be a little more than a hindrance. I strapped them onto my sled with most of my other gear, to use later in the weekend, in case we found some deeper snow. My chance came sooner, however. Rounding the corner (at what we may call "Checkpoint Delta"), I found snow higher than my knees. This was rough going. I didn't know how far this would go on, so I just plowed onward. Bad move.
Lesson One: Secure your drop holster so that it doesn't slide around to the front and become uncomfortably acquainted with your family jewels on a regular bouncing basis.
Lesson Two: Know when to use, and when not to use, snowshoes. Just because there is some snow, doesn't mean that you AUTOMATICALLY should put them on. Conversely, and perhaps more importantly, have them if you THINK you might need them, and put them on as soon as you need to.
At some point I was done taking steps, and seriously considered just crashing out in place (I did have all my gear, food, shelter, and stuff on my sled) on the road. Thumper was still a bit behind me, and by this time two vehicles had gotten stuck, in a bottom-out sort of fashion, trying to drive back in. Dude, if I can't get through, neither can a truck. It was then that I tried the snowshoes out in a serious way, and they worked.
Here, a dismounted Super6 came up behind me with his sled, and Glockmaster9 met up with us and helped Super6 pull his sled into the camp area. Two dismounted troopers from the second vehicle, Mouse and Folksinger, bounded into the camp area to help get it set up. I came in behind, dropped my sled, and headed back out to check on Thumper and the support sled. Six and Glock grabbed the sled, Mouse brought out a chair, and I urged thumper onward. Chuckwagon dismounted and came up behind.
Everyone was tired, sweaty, and dehydrated. The movement had proven to be much harder than a simple "walk back in". This was due to the deep snow and heavy sleds. It was closer to 0200 Saturday morning before folks were cozy in their bags. Two hardcore members slept outside, one in a Dutch tent that seems to be all the rage, and one in a tarp covered field shelter. Having no desire to promote hypothermia, the rest of the band crashed in the big tent.
Lesson Three: In the dark, with deep snow or other hard terrain, stay together. Your buddy may need your help or encouragement. We blew this big time, with folks scattered all over the camp at one point. It was good to fall back and help, like everyone did, but stay together if possible. With inexperienced snowshoers, broken or sprained ankles were a possibility...
Saturday: We have been told that the low Friday night had been 8 degrees. It felt like it. About 4am, I climbed into my bag to check it out. It was a little warmer in the big tent, due to the stove. (To be fair, I had been dozing in a chair, in an effort to be the last one asleep....) Still, after the rough movement, the guys needed to hang and dry their sweaty gear.
|Above: Battlesock Row.......||Booties. Love me some booties.....|
Overnight, the USGI Extreme cold weather bag had worked fine. It is rated down to about 10 degrees. I have never been cold in it, but it is heavy, and has no kind of waterproofing. I suppose some kind of waterproof spray might help, or even a Gore-Tex bivvy cover, but I can shelter it up and keep it dry as I need to with either tents or ponchos and tarps.
The die-hards who had stayed out overnight checked out okay in the morning. One had stayed in a Dutch tent, and one in an improvised tarp shelter. These Dutch tents seem to be popular and effective, but they tend to not include all of the necessary stakes. Several of our militia cohorts have these.
Lesson Four: Check your gear, especially things like tents, for completeness BEFORE going to the field.
|Dutch tent. Decent size, heavy, waterproof bottom...Wonderful.||Tarp shelter... Barbaric. Hardcore.|
The hardy-hard-hardcore militia member that slept under the tarp uses the heavier GI sleeping pad in the winter for its good insulation properties. In the other seasons, the thinner, folding German pad works well. I use the German pad all the time, but have been known to augment this with an extra wool blanket underneath. In both cases above, most of the snow was cleared/scraped out before the shelter was set up. Any snow underneath may melt, leaving you wet and marginally uncomfortable. The sleeping pads help, but as much snow as possible should be cleared away. In at least one case, small toe-warmers helped keep a militia member relatively warm. These are small, light, and inexpensive, and you can find them at the check out counter of your local sporting goods' store.
Checking the snow where the fellas had snuck out at night to take a leak, I saw way too many dark colored stains. This is a sign of dehydration. (This is also the job for any unit leader/coordinator and/or medic. In the winter, somebody has to check the snow stains.) In addition to losing moisture through sweating, we also lose moisture by the simple act of exhaling. This needs to be replaced, even in the cold weather. Coffee or pop do not adequately replenish your body's fluids when you are dehydrated. Gatorade, juice, and especially plain old water are much better. (There are no pictures of this.)
We then did a brief snow shoe class for the folks that did not get to enjoy using them on Friday night. Some of the guys strapped on some snowshoes and stomped around looking for deeper snow. The general consensus is that everyone will probably get a pair, even if it is only the $20 pair (ordered from www.sportsmansguide.com). The $20 snowshoes come with a crappy rubber binding that should be replaced with military strap/bindings as soon as you get them.
|Bay City Bob (left) and Super6 try the snowshoes.||Lo-tech or Hi-tech, get a pair.|
|Folksinger did not like these snowshoes.||It's eleven degrees.....time for burgers!!!|
Speaking of replenishing, the cold weather did not deter Chuckwagon from breaking out the burgers, cleaning off the grill, and having a go at a sub-freezing Militia-Que.
Lesson Five: A twenty dollar pair of snowshoes may be an aggravation, but if you really, really need them, they will become priceless.
Lesson Six: Grilled burgers and beans taste even better when it is in the teens. Try it.
After almost everyone agreed that snowshoes should be added to our standard winter gear, we then conducted a fire building class. The guys who we had not seen previously build a cold weather or wet weather fire set about building one following the able instruction given by Super6. In the winter, it will help if you cut into smaller branches to expose the drier insides, and provide more exposed surface area to catch fire. Winter fire building is not as easy as it looks, and is a skill that we all should practice.
|Super6 teaching a fire building class, with Glockmaster9 and Bay City Bob showing good results. You need to do this.|
By this time, we had encountered several soak through situations with leather boots. It did not seem to matter if the boots were expensive, or low-budget discount jobs. The leather eventually got wet. Where they didn't soak through, they became frozen and stiff. This made it nearly impossible to put them on in the middle of the night or the next morning. I love my Danners, but also brought along some Itasca extreme cold weather boots. Mickey Mouse boots and "Pac" or snowmobile type boots all performed superbly. As good and as multipurpose as some leather boots can be, they will not take the place of good extreme cold weather boots. As winter comes to an end, you should look for these boots in the clearance section. It might boil down to carrying an extra pair of boots in the winter. The booties pictured above functioned well as sort of "tent booties". Thumper even walked around in the snow at night with his. At least two people with Gore-Tex sock liners gave favorable reports on these items.
Speaking of favorable items, two low cost stoves were tested this weekend. The "volcano" stove, and the "alcohol" stove. Both are available from mail order or online, and both worked well. The volcano stove needed exactly one Trioxane bar to heat a cup of coffee to a perfect temperature, but not quite boiling. The alcohol stove was used all weekend, and heated much cocoa and coffee using alcohol. (At least 80%, I think...). Either stove will work ok in a backpack.
|Volcano stove with bottle and cup.||Alcohol stove with burner. Alcohol bottle and cookpot|
The volcano stove requires fuel, and Trioxane worked well. Twigs and home-made heat tabs can be used in a pinch. The alcohol stove comes with a bottle for you to bring your own alcohol. NEITHER should be used without ventilation, especially not in a small tent or indoors. The alcohol stove will also heat a canteen cup quickly, as shown above, right. The nasty dollar-store Egyptian coffee shown with the volcano stove on the left is extremely horrible and should not even be served to Al-Qaeda terrorists. The stoves actually are intended for varied purposes. The volcano stove was acquired mainly to have a metal water bottle and an effective way to thaw it out if it becomes frozen (the bottle fits into the stove, and a wire hook holds it above your heat source). The alcohol stove is actually for cooking actual food, coffee, cocoa and the like. The alcohol stove has been described as "a perfect stove for car camping".
Saturday evening, after a couple of vehicles had been rescued by "The Tractor Extractor", and some wood had been gathered for the "big house", and we had a slight turnover of folks, we settled in for another test of cold-weather gear, and our ability to tolerate one another in close quarters.....
An additional die-hard showed up and set up a tent, whilst our two previous outsiders remained in the cold. There were now three folks sleeping outside of the tent, and six inside. Thumper had hauled in a couple of #10 cans of beef stew and ravioli to share with everyone. (He also brought an extra sleeping bag, extra tarps, extra water, and Gatorade for everybody...Yeah, his sled was heavy...)
Everyone made it OK overnight. The leather boots were having a rough time staying dry, and they managed to stiffen up overnight for a couple of folks. One boot, unfortunately, sought too eagerly the warmth of the wood stove, and now resides in stove heaven. May it rest in peace. The enterprising owner of said boot simply crafted a suitable replacement from a blanket, plastic bag, and duct tape. That's the militia way....
LESSON 7: Do not cook your boot, but if you do, have some kind of back-up plan.
Sunday morning saw some function testing of at least a couple of firearms. I am pleased to report that my new Glock 17 gleefully emptied two hi-cap mags downrange with no malfunction at all. That's a somewhat pleasant and reassuring feeling, dumping 34 or so rounds downrange with a handgun....ahhhhhh. MAK9 also did some function testing of a rifle in which he is trying to develop some confidence. If you have any doubts about a certain rifle, get them fixed, or bring another one. I think he is getting this one up and running...
Glockmaster had discovered that one of his MREs contained a powdered vanilla shake, that required adding cold water and shaking. For some reason, we all found this hilarious, and started referring to MREs as "happy meals". The only thing missing was a small toy inside. He reported that the shake did not taste bad, sort of like a vanilla Ensure or something. It never really developed into anything thick, like a real shake. We understand the need for comfort foods for the troops, but adding a milkshake seemed to be taking this idea a bit too far. Having done all this, we then conducted a "bread-and-butter" squad movement through the snow, to get an idea how this would operate. We also wanted to get a good look at various types of winter camo.
Moving through snow in sunny weather demands some kind of eye protection. The US military surplus goggles that I bought from GI Surplus in Wayne did an excellent job of fitting over my glasses, and they did not fog up too badly. Granted, I was not running or anything, but merely trudging through heavy snow with your gear on can constitute heavy exercise.
Above: Super6 leading a fire team through a beautiful Michigan winter landscape. His camo pattern is of unknown origin, but may be an older East German pattern...Note the white medical tape helping to camo his rifle. Glockmaster9mm on the left has newer German snow camo. Note his face covering. Mak9 on the right has a plain white top.
Mak9 on the snow. Good, but face needs camo.
|BR in homemade camo, Lee in US Navy winter camo. Faces.|
We then set about packing up to roll out. There was still no way for vehicles to make it back and forth, and the tractor extractor was off-site. We had to sled it back out. Three teams of two persons each headed up to the front, Cabbage and Mak9 slid out first, followed by myself and Super6, BR and Thumper were to bring up the rear. The plan was for either of the first two teams to try and find an easier route out for Thumper, who was pulling an overloaded sled, and who was also enjoying some rather delightful ankle injuries. As it turned out, there was no such thing as an easy way out, especially with a heavy sled, so this got turned into an excellent training opportunity. The first two teams unloaded their sleds and peeled back to extract thumper and his sled. On the way to the back, we experienced our second collapse-from-exhaustion event in recent years, due primarily to an individual not eating anything at all so far that day. This person was given some pretzels and Gatorade, about 10 minutes' worth of rest, and reconscripted back into the extraction team. Three persons hauled Thumper out, and two hauled out the monster sled. When the lead team was almost clear, BR came back to help pull the heavily loaded supply sled. Everybody worked together, everybody got out, and we re-affirmed our dedication to never leave anyone behind. This was some of the most exhaustively hardcore type of drill we have ever done in the many years I have been involved. Kudos to the hardcore extraction team, and big Kudos to Thumper for volunteering to simulate the person with the injuries. You never know how or even if you can do this type of thing until you try it.
So we ended a really productive training weekend, with everyone getting a good idea about what works (stoves and snowshoes) and what doesn't (leather boots). Everyone is a bit more confident in their ability to stay out, move, and survive in a winter environment. Hope to see you out there next time!!! -Lee
|Thumper's hockey shin guards.....||The long haul........||Yeah, this is FUN, alright....|
Click on Lee (above) for bonus Snow Dog pictures. They are large files and will take a long time to load.