Guest Blog: Winter Camping at Burton Island by Matt Parsons
Burton Island is a 253-acre park off the southwestern tip of Hathaway Point in St. Albans Vermont, in Lake Champlain’s ‘Inland Sea’. The park is accessible only by boat in the summer time. The state’s passenger ferry makes the 10-minute trip from Kamp Kill Kare State Park. All Vermont State Parks are open from November 1st to April 15th. People wanting to camp in the off-season need to submit a request at least three days in advance and wait for approval. The reason for this is that there might be construction, logging or some other project going on that they wouldn’t want campers in the middle of. You can submit a request at this link:
This adventure took place in February so I would be crossing the ice. I was layed off from the concrete construction business during the winter and was single at the time and the winter doldrums were setting in. A sure fire way for me to kick the mid winter blues is to get out and explore. In Vermont we are privileged to explore the parks in the off season at no charge, providing we respect the property and pack out what we pack in. This is a policy that I appreciate and believe in. On a Tuesday morning I decided to traverse across the solid ice to Burton Island and explore.
It was a cold and grey kind of day. A day that most people in my situation would stay in for. Perhaps it is my Vermont heritage, but that kind of thing drives me to do things differently than most. I packed my day pack, dressed accordingly and headed out the door. The gate to Kill Kare was open and I was able to drive my car to the parking lot. It had been a particularly cold winter and there was ice as far as the eye could see. Seeing a few ice fishermen assured me that the ice was safe. I avoided the pressure cracks and proceeded to make a bee line for the island.
Once on land I strolled the campsites and lean-to areas at the northwest side of the island. At one of the last lean-to‘s I spotted some firewood left over from the summer camping season. A seed was planted! As I hiked the rugged shoreline trail on the west side, I began entertaining the idea of a winter sleep over. It wasn’t a picture perfect day but the rugged landscape made up for the lack of sweet light a photographer longs for. I snapped a few pictures with my point and shoot as I wandered along.
This was my first time visiting Burton Island. My first time adventures usually end up as some sort of reconnaissance mission for something more spectacular. This trip was no different. All I could think about on the way back to the car was the lean-to and the easily available firewood. A camp fire is essential to my camping experience. The fact that it was just sitting there beckoned to be enjoyed. I finally resolved to return and began formulating a plan.
In a short few weeks I began putting together my gear for a winter overnight camping experience. This would be my first time since I was a kid in Boy Scouts. I am a mere novice but I am keenly aware of my basic skills and the simple gear that I possess. That is one reason why the lean-to and available wood appealed to me. What I lack in ability and gear, I make up for with creative determination. A trait common to us native Vermonters.
This whole idea brought back memories of camping on the Long Trail with my dad and Boy Scout troop #53. That is probably why I began talking it over with my 11 year old son. He had no experience but seemed willing to trust the old man. This was during a time in our lives together that I would stretch my kids fortitude. Fortunately they enjoyed spending time with me and trusted doing what ever dad wanted to do.
The day arrived and we put all the gear in the car. I waited until afternoon so that we wouldn’t have too much idle time that could possibly bore my son. It was a moderately cold and overcast day but there was slush on top of the ice. I packed our boat sled in the parking lot as I had rehearsed at home. I threw my pack over my shoulders and we began to trudge the approximate 1 mile to our shelter.
David soon began amusing himself in the slush. Before I knew it he was doing a “Pete Rose slide” into the slush and skating along like an otter. It was amusing to watch and I actually got a chuckle out of it. Then reality struck! There was no way that this boy was going to enjoy a winters night of camping in cold wet clothes. I quickly reasoned with him and decided to turn back.
We returned home and began to thaw out. In an unspoken moment we came to understand that David’s heart wasn’t in it and mine was. He decided to go back home to his mom’s which he seldom did. I agreed and planned to go at it alone the following day with his blessing.
I had already explored the island so I employed the same strategy of an afternoon start. The conditions were the same as the day before. I quickly assembled my gear and hit the ice again. Fortunately the shelter had 1 side facing the West which protected me from the prevailing winds. The open end faced the North but was sheltered slightly by trees. The best I could hope for now was to have mother nature show favor and trust in my skills and gear.
I unassembled my gear from my sled and began the nesting process. The one thing I like about camping is that there is no right or wrong way to camp. I am casual about all my outdoor activities. I tend to buy the core things I need of good quality and make up for the rest with determination and Yankee ingenuity. On this trip I packed an air mattress and my warmest sleeping bag along with a full blown 2 burner cook stove. Heavy by most hikers standards but my “cargo sled” helped. My stay was going to be short and I didn’t pack any mre’s. I packed a medium sized cooler that contained my dinner, bacon, eggs and coffee for breakfast. These are essential staples to my morning ritual. As long as I am willing to do the work, I will pack what I like to make my time enjoyable.
I moved the picnic table into the shelter so that I could cook and eat in the shelter. Once my digs were to my liking I focused on the firepit. There wasn’t enough hard wood for the night. Fortunately there was a down tree that I remembered from my reconnaissance mission weeks before. I brought a hatchet and a saw and used my sled to transport the wood back to camp. With a little news paper, some dryer lint and a bottle of lighter fluid I was quickly warming my chilled bones by the fire. Not exactly how the extremist do it, but I’m NOT an extremist.
Now it was time to relax! I broke out my folding camp chair and bundled up by the fire with a cup of hot cocoa. Darkness soon settled in and the temperature began to drop. Peace and quiet has a whole different sound out on the ice. The winter wind howls through the barren trees and the ice pops and snaps as it gives birth to more ice. Even in the dark eeriness their is a sense of Peace that overrides the haunting sounds.
Just as I got settled in and accustom to this new found peace, a fox ran into sight about 50 yards out. I watched it come from the interior of the island. As it headed toward the open ice, the fox stopped in mid trot and stared at me in curiosity. I imagined him wondering what I was doing out here in the off season on such a cold night. Crazy human! Appearing satisfied that I was not a threat the fox resumed heading to the open ice. I presume it was headed out to find a tasty remnant from a day of ice fishermen. I was grateful and satisfied to have seen some wildlife on the island. I stirred around the campsite until I felt tired.
My night time ritual was complicated by the dropping temps. I layed on top of my sleeping bag and preheated my bed. In a few minutes I slipped into the sack and proceeded to doze off. In the middle of the night a chill began to set in. The wind increased and shifted to coming from the North. Still in my clothes I opted to use a tarp and some bungi’s to cover the front of my shelter. The extra work assured me of a warm and complete rest. The tarps folded up nicely in my cargo sled and proved to be beneficial.
To say the morning was crisp is an understatement. My breath was heavy as morning fog as I tested the air from my warm sleeping bag. Hot coffee was my incentive to jump out of the sack and run to the cook stove. I stirred the coals into flame with what wood I had left. Hot coffee and a roaring fire warmed me inside and out as I sat in my camp chair. I used a menagerie of cooking equipment that I threw together to make my traditional breakfast. On the frame work of the shelter I spotted a work of art. Somebody had taken two clam shells from the shore and fashioned them to sticks. The distinctively different sizes indicated that someone had once set a fancy table. ( or at least I imagined) The lavender colored shells made them extra fancy. If I’m ever stranded on an island without utensil I will know what to do.
Hot breakfast went down the hatch. I sat at the picnic table inside the lean-to and savoured the silence. I felt like I was one of the few people who ever dared to venture out on this island to camp in the winter. On the way back to the mainland I began to reminisce of the last 24 hours. Each step closer to the car made me feel I like I had beat Old Man Winter at his own game. I felt more accomplished that I did it with random equipment I had laying around the house. The fact that I did it my way rather than the way of an extremist made me glad that I’m a Vermonter