HACKENSACK -- The best way to appreciate the great outdoors is to be there.
Students in the natural resources program at Central Lakes College learned to appreciate warm clothing, a good fire, cozy tents and each other during the one-credit weekend class called Winter Field Experience.
This year, one of the coldest weekends of the season couldn't keep them indoors. Temperatures dipped well below zero at Deep Portage Conservation Reserve under a full moon when the campers settled beneath blankets, zipped inside insulated bags with only a strip of nylon between them and the bone-chilling air.
Pre-trip planning is a crucial part of the experience. Understanding the elements is important, too.
"Ideal weather is from 10 above to 10 below, but generally when it hits 20 below we don't go," instructor Gary Carson said. "This minimizes chances of over-sweating and getting hypothermia."
One year the campers understood the nighttime reading was forecast to hit minus 20. "It wound up bottoming out at about 32 below," Carson said. Everyone got through fine, thanks in part to the change into a dry set of clothes.
"They're required to have a complete change of clothing," he said, because once they have hauled the gear in, gathered wood, started the fire, made dinner and finished moving around, the wet cold can lead to hypothermia.
"Working together as a team is one of several goals for the students," said Carson.
Each student brings food, so there is plenty to eat. Each student experiences the process of prioritizing needs for the trip, as well as packing and pulling a sled.
The Wednesday before the overnight adventure, students learn from Carson just how to pack the sleds they will pull behind them on a four-mile hike to the campsite.
The students endorse the activity, even if it did take some of them away from the Brainerd Jaycees $150,000 Ice Fishing Extravaganza. "We had perhaps fewer campers this year because of the fishing contest," Carson said.
"But we have never caught fish like we did this year on Little Boy Lake."
Using a depth finder that sees through ice two feet thick, student Nathan Thom ventured just a few feet from shore and augered a hole through which he and classmates hauled up a 6-pound northern pike and a 2-pound largemouth bass.
"Fathead suckers, fresh from a shop in Hackensack, that's the key," said Thom, a freshman from Twin Valley.
Others on the camping trip and earning one credit from the course are Nathan Doucette of Fort Ripley, Dan Krueger of Baraboo, Wis., Nick Backlund of Eden Prairie, David Pulscher of Baxter, Dustin Polkow of Cushing, and Lucas Jensen of Springfield.
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