By MEGAN JAMES
NEW HAVEN — As Dave Winborn prepared for his first full winter living in a tent in the New Haven woods last fall, he had no doubt his home — a Cabela’s Deluxe Alaknak II — would survive to see the spring.
“I was supremely confident that no weather, no natural things would do my tent in,” he said.
The tent collapsed in early February, while the 55-year-old emergency medical technician was working the overnight shift and 17 inches of snow was pummeling the area.
“I came home, saw that it had collapsed and early that evening I thought, ‘Camp Titanic.’ That will teach me,” he said, chuckling.
But Winborn didn’t let the collapse get him down, and unless he was on duty for Valley Rescue Squad in Hancock or New Haven First Response, he never missed a night in that tent. In fact, his camp did make it through the winter, and he plans to do it all again next year.
On a recent morning he was getting ready for spring-cleaning: taking down some branches dangling threateningly over his roof, clearing out the roots protruding from his floor and taking out the insulation he packed against the walls and covered with sheets so he wouldn’t breathe in particles of the insulation.
Winborn’s motto since moving into his tent last summer has been, “Try something. If it works, stick with it, if it doesn’t work, try something else,” he said.
He moved into the tent, which he pitched on a friend’s land, in part because he couldn’t afford an apartment, he said. But also, he did it just to see if he could.
The morning after his tent collapsed, Winborn came home to find the roof was on the floor under hundreds of pounds of wet snow. He lost a few books and magazines, some linen and his laptop computer, but he didn’t lose his home. The tent’s walls remained in tact, the wood stove’s chimney was still standing and an addition he attached as a mud-room withstood the storm.
He spent the day shoveling the snow, lifting it over the tent’s walls so he could raise the roof again.
“I slept here that night wondering if it was going to come down,” he said. “After about a month I decided I can relax again.”
Now the tent’s central pole stands at a slight angle, topped with a windbreaker to plug rips in the ceiling — but it still holds up the roof.
“I’ve camped out in the winter before, but I’ve never done the whole winter before, so it’s been a learning experience. I’ve made a few mistakes, and I’ve been able to improvise,” he said.
One of the biggest mistakes was burning pinewood in the woodstove. Pine gives off too many sparks, Winborn explained, pointing to the coin-sized holes in the walls he patched up with scotch tape.
All the pine he had cut and split before winter arrived became junk-wood; he had to start all over again with hardwood.
“I’m dyslexic,” he said. “I do things backward and then I straighten them out.”
Winborn still spends two or three hours a day working on wood — cutting it down, stacking it onto a bright blue sled with yellow rope, dragging it back to camp and splitting it. The biggest hunk of wood he ever hauled back to the tent was 63 inches in diameter.
“That tree kept me warm for a couple weeks,” he said.
Still, since Winborn was diagnosed with multiple spinal problems in January, it’s been increasingly more difficult to keep up with the woodpile.
“Every day it’s nice out, I have to do wood because I can only do it for short periods of time,” he said.
When it was really cold Winborn regularly checked the thermometer tacked up in his tent. The coldest morning was negative 17 degrees Fahrenheit, he said. He kept the woodstove burning continuously.
“I’d wake up every couple hours to feed the fire. I’d nurse it for about an hour before I could fall back asleep. Other times I’d just stay awake, deal with it, read and do crosswords. Stimulate my intellectual self,” he said, with a smile.
Winborn had an electric blanket, which was plugged into an extension cord that ran beneath snow and forest debris all the way to the neighbor’s house, but he used it less than half the time. The power cut out just once when a heavy branch fell and broke apart the connection.
“There have been loud cracks during windstorms in the middle of the night and I know stuff is coming down, and I just hope it isn’t coming down on me,” he said.
Luckily, it never was.
He tried to eat most of his meals at work, or at restaurants, so as not to attract animals to the tent. At home he usually made tea or soup, just something to keep his hands warm, but once he made beef stroganoff over the woodstove.
The animals in his backyard are certainly curious.
The bear he heard snooping around his tent last fall slept through the winter, but plenty of other animals have visited Winborn in the woods — a barred owl, staring him down from eight feet away, a wild turkey and a pack of coyotes howling in the morning.
“I know other people think they’re a pest, but they’re just so beautiful to listen to,” he said. “They’re greeting each other after their hunt. I think it’s cool; they have family.”
“I’ve paid a heavy price for being here … because some people have been embarrassed by how I live,” he said. “They don’t like the fact that I’m in a tent. It doesn’t look good.”
Others aren’t so judgmental, but rarely understand he is living in the tent by choice. Throughout the winter they offered him guest rooms, couches, sleeping bags on floors. He always declined.
He never considered the camp anything but home.
“I know I was born in the wrong century, because this appeals to me,” he said. “I was sitting out here last night by a campfire relaxing. And it was nice. It was warm out, and when it started getting a little chilly I put a little jacket on. A campfire at night — I need to relax more anyway — that helps.”
For as long as he can remember, Winborn has wanted to live in the woods. He talks about it like he’s living the dream.
“Even when I came home and saw the tent collapsed, I just thought, ‘This is my home. I have to save it,’” he said. “And that’s what I did.”