(Note: Rachel Hemond, an 18-year-old from Acton, MA with Type 1 diabetes, spent five months in the Vermont wilderness, managing her blood sugar using the Omnipod System and with the support from a network of doctors, family, and friends. This is the fifth in a 10-part series of blogs Rachel wrote about her experiences.)
I pick my way along the path, headed for the glowing warmth of the yurt that is to become the classroom, living space, and kitchen at the Kroka Expedition basecamp for the next five months of winter. A few other students have arrived and we are given small tasks to keep us busy for the two hours before lunch. I help lay hemlock boughs on the floor of our dwelling until we are called back to the yurt for a final meal with our families before they leave and we move on, walking into the snow-dusted forest.
Our lives settle into a rhythm, but not so much that we grow bored or restless. Mornings begin with a song from the teachers to wake us up. We don’t have watches, but from the sun’s position on the edge of the horizon we know it’s about 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. We trundle from our dwellings – nicknamed hobbit holes – to the yurt, breath freezing on hair and eyelashes like droplets of crystal. The woodstove in the yurt is lit and we gnaw drowsily on apple and cheese to tide us over until breakfast. I warm my hands before testing my blood sugar since circulation to my hands decreases overnight due to the cold.
We head out to do chores, which range from splitting wood to taking care of the farm to cooking our meals for the day. An hour later, we return to the yurt to eat and plan for the rest of our day to prepare for our expedition. On one day, we’re in the basement, pinning and cutting to the hum of sewing machines as anoraks slowly take shape beneath the needles while other days might find us deep in the woods, felling hemlock trees to re-floor our dwelling and learn forestry. Knife making in the workshop, math classes in the yurt, setting up the tent and lighting fires in snowdrifts and dehydrating the mountains of necessary food make up our days.
We also have big jobs that center around some aspect of the expedition. Food managers dehydrate vegetables and fruit and jerkies and make menus. The navigator pencils our route onto the maps. I, the sewing manager, make endless pairs of mitten shells. Not exactly the most thrilling of jobs, but there is a beautiful, simple satisfaction about making something useful and practical with nothing but a pattern and a needle.
Lunch is followed by another block of preparing for the expedition followed by “Push-ups and Poetry,” a combination of calisthenics and literature where we read a poem or essay, do a round of push-ups or jumping jacks or sit ups, discuss the aforementioned writing, do more crunches or leg-lifts or squats, write our response to the reading, and so on and so forth.
The end of the day is for evening meeting, where we check in on individual and group health before returning to our dwellings as the ice-crusted snow glitters in the moonlight. Our day’s work leaves us exhausted yet satisfied.
For the most part basecamp is a time of relative inactivity, which means I have little trouble with my blood sugars. A few nights in, however, I notice that I’m low in the mornings. This is not a problem when I’m home and eat breakfast right after waking up, but at Kroka it means that I am late for chores because I’m stuck in the yurt waiting for my sugars to climb back up. Soon enough, I realize the reason; I’m “sleeping cold” after an entire life spent sleeping in a house that is always the perfect temperature. Now my body is the heating system and works even while the rest of me is asleep, chewing through my blood.
Once I sort this out, I just fiddle around with my basal rate. First, I set different temp basals of 50 percent decrease, then 70 percent when the former didn’t work as well as I need it to. At last, I get it right and change my basal program. I’ve learned that cold drops my blood sugars and to set lower temp basals whenever I know we would be outside for longer.
I re-do a lot of my earlier pack out as well, recognizing that I had missed a few key concepts when packing in December at home. I hadn’t thought about water, for instance, and if you’ve ever tried to eat a sugar tab when you’re dehydrated, you understand why not having any is a problem.
But I would be in Vermont, and Vermont means maple syrup. Easily carried in Nalgene bottles, and freeze-resistant, it is the ideal substitute for glucose tablets. And of course the small child inside me delights in the idea of drinking maple syrup straight from the jug, so I pack out about twelve ounces per leg of expedition.
I was also using far less insulin than I’d anticipated, and far more test strips. I adjust their numbers accordingly and plan out when I need more Pods and other diabetes-related necessities brought to me. I create a little pouch to carry my insulin, an ugly-yet-functional invention I am fairly proud of. It has a wool pocket big enough to hold two vials of insulin, four batteries, and my PDM (Personal Diabetes Manager). A sleeve holds insulin pens in case of apocalyptic Pod failure. The wool pocket is inside of a bag that I make out of a tougher fabric, with a long band that allows me to hang the whole thing around my neck. I can carry everything under my long underwear, right next to my body to keep it warm.
Finally, I line my supplies up with the food resupplies and our layovers, put the extra insulin in the fridge and everything else in a storage bay, and breathe a sigh of relief.
(Next: On the trail, discovering the limits of equipment in extreme cold.)