Winter Camping on Peaks Island: Can Rocks Explode? You Betcha.

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It was January 1986 and I had a rare weekend off from my island medical practice on Peaks Island, 2 miles off the coast of Portland, Maine. Childhood friends: Tux, Rudy, Bruce, George, and Rob arrived on the noon ferry and threw their gear into the back of my truck. We had camped and canoed together since junior high in the wilds of New Jersey (Okay, it seemed wild). Later, we moved on to more challenging winter camping trips in the Adirondacks of New York and the White Mountain in New Hampshire. If winter camping had taught us anything, it was how to suffer.

Coming off the boat, Tux, the prepared one, reminded me that I should bring a sleeping bag liner for my winter sleeping bag. “The latest radio report says it’s getting into the single numbers tonight, maybe lower.” Tux lugged his neatly packed backpack down the gangplank and added, “and think about a second pair of gloves to wear under your mittens.” My ears perked up. I listened to Tux. The man was Mr. Organized and believed in redundancy. If your feet get soaked, have an extra pair of dry socks. Bring two knit caps, that sort of thing. Then there was Rudy’s approach to winter camping: “I grabbed a lot of stuff and threw it into this box.”  Of course, it helped that Rudy carried an extra 60 pounds of insulation over his rounded 5-foot 7 frame. Rudy’s nickname, Dancing Bear, suited him to a T. In winter, instead of hibernating, the man danced in the cold.

After stopping at my house to pick up a few items, I drove slowly around to the back-shore of Peaks Island facing the open ocean and stopped the truck. The one mile stretch of road running along the water was deserted. A faint mist hung over the water. The crash of waves against Whaleback ledge alternated with the hiss of backwash on the stone beach as the next wave gathered and broke. There wasn’t a lobster boat in site.

We unloaded a tarp and a clump of rope above the high-tide mark and collected driftwood to build a sweat lodge. Rudy stomped down the snow where we would erect the structure while George cleared out debris for a fire pit. “Sweat lodge, sweat-lodge!”  Rudy shouted as he did a little dance. “Check this out.” He pointed towards the drift wood. “First, we make the teepee, no problem. Then we wrap the plastic around it and bury the edges in the snow. After dark, when the boulders glow red-hot in the outside fire, we roll then into the middle of the teepee.”

“And then?” I asked.

“And then we add water. The steam rises from the red-hot boulders, curls around behind us, and slaps us in the back of the head. Freedom!”

We wagged our heads in agreement. What could possibly go wrong?

I looked behind us, across a frozen marsh, to the top of Battery Steele, tonight’s camping destination. Okay, I thought to myself, am I naked inside the sweat lodge? I’m not sure I want to know.

The 6 of us went to work. In no time, the teepee was up and wrapped in plastic. Rudy dragged in a few logs for us to sit on. Because Rudy was half-Finnish, he had the honor of picking out the stones and nestled them into the base of the driftwood for the night’s bonfire.

We returned to the truck and drove on an icy dirt road over to Battery Steele.  During World War II Battery Steele housed two 16-inch artillery guns to protect the North Atlantic Fleet in Casco Bay from German U-Boats. Our campsite was at the top of the deserted battery. Picking our way to the top of the forty-foot-high embankment, we set up our tents in a clearing after stomping down the snow. I tried to light my single-burner stove. The fuel was frozen; it didn’t work. Rudy tossed me a working fuel cartridge, and in a few minutes, I was heating up a can of Dinty Moore stew. The six of us shared a Tupper Ware container of mint brownies my wife, Sandi, packed for us. Like a farm family, we were acutely aware that Rudy would grab more than his share if we didn’t act quickly. Too late, I got one, Rude got 3. The sun dropped behind a cloud. I unzipped my parka for a moment and slipped on my down vest. Though it took only a moment, I began to shiver.

Rudy signaled that it was “sweat-lodge” time. We filled our pockets with beer cans and snacks and returned to the rocky beach. Although it was only 4 in the afternoon, the sun had set over Battery Steele and the temperature plummeted. The bone-dry driftwood caught fire and we leaned in for warmth. Alcohol was consumed.  A few strides away stood our make-shift sweat lodge.

Night fell. Mars, closer to Earth than it would be another decade, hovered on the eastern horizon and cast a faint shadow over the water. The Milky Way, like a shadowy magic carpet, undulated overhead. Bruce, as pencil-thin as Rudy was pleasingly plump, picked out the constellation Orion, the hunter. In a vain attempt to keep warm, Bruce ran in place and swung his arms in exaggerated jumping jacks. The man could run forever, but standing still as the temperature plummeted was agony. For a while, the balance between fun and misery tipped towards fun.

We sipped our beer and reverted back to our grade school, junior high and high school days, picking on each other unmercifully, reliving previous camping disasters, high-school summer jobs, cross-country motorcycle journeys, and sketchy, long-forgotten girlfriends. Rob was reminded that he missed a crucial foul shot in a varsity basketball game l5 years ago. George, an undersized half-back and rugby player, was already moving slower with a bad back and funky knees. Four of us were now married. Sandi and 2-year old Kate were asleep at home; Tux and Rob, one boy each. We were settling into our adult lives, our adult responsibilities.

But not quite yet, not when there was an opportunity to winter camp.

Momentarily, I worried about my island patients. My mind drifted to the hospital where I’d signed out 4 islanders to Dr. Phil Slocum. Had I given him a full report? Would they still be there Monday morning? I felt my shoulders hunch and my neck tighten. I was off-call but my island practice always hovered close by.

With a piece of driftwood, Rudy poked a boulder out of the fire and rolled it towards the sweat-lodge. The boulder glowed red and sizzled steam as he nudged it along. Pulling the flap aside, he pushed the boulder inside. “Boys! Grab a stick! It’s SWEAT LODGE TIME!” We followed his lead and soon a jumble of boulders glowed and sizzled in the middle of the sweat lodge. As our eyes adjusted to the darkness, Rudy came into clear view: He was sitting buck-naked on a log with a canteen of water at his side. “Strip down guys; this is going to be AWESOME!”

The inside of the sweat lodge was already warming up. I brushed off a clump of seaweed from my log, and undressed, taking note of exactly where my snow-pants lay and sat on my parka. A pool of water collected beneath our feet where the snow was melting. I can safely say that this was the only time I wore three pairs of socks inside my hiking boots and nothing else.

“Let’s do it Rude,” I said. “My butt is freezing.”

“Okay guys, here comes the steam…..” With that, Rudy emptied his canteen onto the glowing rocks. Steam billowed upwards. Then the rocks exploded. Bam! Shards of granite flew everywhere in the darkness. My shins felt like they were on fire. We burst out of the sweat-lodge like rats from a sinking ship. I slipped on a rock and fell heavily on my side. The sweat lodge collapsed in a heap. The plastic melted. Toxic steam rose into the sky.

Frantically we pawed through the plastic and driftwood and smoke searching for our clothes in the darkness. I fished out my pants. George found my parka. Rob found George’s parka. We dressed more quickly than humanly possible. Remarkably, there were no serious injuries. I fished a flashlight out of my pocket and shone it around. Tux was already dressed. Rudy seemed intent on forcing two legs into one leg of his insulated underwear. My shins were peppered with pock marks and dried blood but nothing looked worthy of stitches. We were okay. We stoked up the bon-fire and tried in vain to regain a sense of warmth. Rudy suggested we drink more beer but by now, no-one was listening to Mr. Sweat- Lodge.

As we trudged back to our tents atop Battery Steele, no one was particularly chatty. I wormed my way into my sleeping bag and drifted off. Hours later, I awoke, shivering uncontrollably. My mustache was frozen. Tux was humming away in his sleep. He looked annoyingly comfortable. I don’t even want to know how many socks he was wearing. I looked at my watch. It was 9:30. Only 9 more hours before sunrise…

Morning saved us. I unzipped the fly and poked my head outside the tent and was surprised that the other two tents were gone. The ocean was flat to the horizon. Above the sea smoke, a pale, heatless sun rose. I stood outside, stamping my feet and running in place. Tux emerged and looked every bit as miserable as I did. We stuffed our gear into our backpacks and walked down to where the truck was parked. On the gun battery cement floor, out of last night’s wind, we found George and Rudy folding up their tent. Bruce was gone. Rob explained that Bruce had bailed, crossing the island in the middle of the night, to sleep at my house. Bruce was never one to be swayed by the herd; he’d reached a point of utter misery and just took off. Bruce, the smart one.

Looking over my friends, I cracked a smile. What was that definition of adventure Tux had suggested over the fire last night? Fun with consequences. I liked that. Marriage, children, work, and hundreds of miles separated us now, but the effort to get together, even for a brief night of suffering, was worth it. We could still do stupid.

The truck barely turned over, caught, and roared. I flipped on the heater. In a few minutes, I could feel my toes painfully come back to life. We parked in front of the Cockeyed Gull and limped in for breakfast. I looked at my crew. Our faces were smudged with smoke and soot. Each of us wore two knit caps. Like outlaws, our scarves were wrapped around our faces. We settled into our seats and ordered coffee and tea and eggs and muffins and sausage and bacon and pancakes and hot syrup. Richard Erico, a man who knew most everything about Peaks Island leaned over from an adjacent table and asked, “Dr. Radis, I thought that was you up there on Battery Steele when I drove by this morning. You boys had a hard night?”

Two dozen ears perked up. News on an island travels fast.

12 thoughts on “Winter Camping on Peaks Island: Can Rocks Explode? You Betcha.

  1. Chuck, thanks for an interesting winter campout story. It reminded me of my many boy scout camping out
    freezing nights. Thanks again for an enjoyable story from Maine.

    • Those early years of scouting when we went camping were often frigid. We had the canvas tents and sleeping bags which came from Grants Department store… Thanks for writing.

    • You’re not the only one bringing up the Boy Scout connection and having equipment in those days which came from Grant’s Department store. In summer, the canvas tents leaked; in winter, the sleeping bags were nothing like we have today. Chuck

    • Thanks Kathy,

      I thought it might be a good change of pace for these dog days of July. I remember the years Jean Cleary went with her dad on those winter camping trips to Zealand hut in the White Mountains. Did you ever go on one of those? Chuck

  2. Chuck, this chilling tale once again gave me pause to celebrate declining your invitation to join y’all! I encourage you boys to have another in January to honor its 35th Anniversary. With global warming, you’ll be able to do it in shorts and sandals. You’ll be able to write another really cool story about it – with pics! (Include me out.)

    • You are one cool customer with ice in your veins and a frosty hoar breath. Be honest, all of these years you’ve been yearning for a return to Lewiston, Maine, but only for December, January, and February. Come north for Allaghash beer and ice tea. (Hope all well with your mom). Charlie

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