The simple joys of camping in a snowdrift
Like swimming, camping is a year-round sport in Canada—among people who insist that you, and not they, are crazy. Here, one of the initiates tells how it’s done-—and why
CANADIANS ARE MISSING a lot of fun by spurning something which, in a country like ours, should be a national recreation. I mean winter camping.
Anyone who hasn't dug a snow-hole in the dusk of a zero evening, floored it with balsam boughs and then snuggled into a fluffy sleeping bag to watch the moon rise through a tapestry of spruce trees has missed one of the great privileges of being a Canadian.
But whenever 1 try to persuade a friend that a winter night spent in the bush in a good sleeping bag is perfectly practical, safe and even fun for any normally active outdoor type, he regards me as either a liar or a lunatic. One acquaintance can see it only as an economical method of suicide — I'll freeze so still' one of these nights, he's warned me. that my corpse won’t require embalming. This skepticism bewilders me. because these people obviously do not know the romantic story of their country. Every winter night, many hundreds of Canadians — trappers. foresters, rangers. Mounties—are sleeping outdoors throughout the Canadian north, bedding down comfortably for the long, subzero night as casually as the rest of us put out our milk bottles. And when 1 say outdoors, i mean that literally. Tents are for keeping out rain and mosquitoes: most woodsmen regard them as a nuisance in winter. Some trappers who can travel their traplines with dogs and a sled carry a tent and a small tent stove, but most of them sleep under the stars. A snow-hole or a spruce-bough lean-to with a fire in front of it can usually be made as comfortable as a tent.
Having sounded off like a transplanted Eskimo, I should put the record straight and reveal my qualifications for discussing winter camping. 1 have slept outdoors in subzero weather a grand total of four nights, which hardly makes me an expert. I know a few people, however, who arc experts and who do it regularly, simply because they enjoy it. and I can vouch that they haven’t lost a toe yet to frostbite. I can also vouch that my own four nights in a snowbank have
been passably comfortable ones, ami certainly memorable, because sleeping out in the snow the first few times is like swimming your first mile—it’s just good for the ego to know you can do it.
1 discovered you don’t have to be a polar bear to survive a winter night outdoors when, a few years ago. I went to the RCAE's survival school in Alberta to write an article on how pilots are trained to survive after crash landing in the north. The training procedure is simple. Airmen are sent into the bush with emergency rations and equipment and they learn to survive by doing it. Instructors (who have a heated cabin strictly out of bounds to the airmen) tell them blandly that if they are still alive at the end of the course, they have passed.
Winter clothing, a sleeping bag. rations and a cooking outfit were issued to me at Edmonton and 1 joined a class already out in camp. The boys ahead of me were crowded in one spruce-bough shelter, so one of them joined me and we built a bough leanto of our own. I slept there three nights and with a good fire in front of it. reflecting heat under the lean-to. I was just chilly at times but never really cold. 1 found that living outdoors in winter was not only possible, but actually pleasant. But the clinching proof came when 1 stopped at the instructors' shack on the way out. I learned there that I had been using a sleeping bag of only half thickness. It was assumed in Edmonton that I would bunk in the warm with the instructors, so 1 had not been issued with the bag liner, the equivalent of a second down-filled sleeping bag. which should have gone inside the bag I was using.
After that, whenever 1 stepped outside on a winter evening when the aurora was doing its pyrotechnic snake dance across the northern sky. I remembered those Alberta nights under the spruce-bough lean-to. and 1 wanted to do it again. One night 1 announced to my wife that i was going to build a fire in the backyard and sleep beside it to keep in practice. She is an experienced campCONTINUED ON PAGE 68
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The simple joys of camping in a snowdrift continued from page 29
I had to agree that city proprieties ruled out winter camping in our yard
er, but she vetoed this. The neighbors, she said, would think she had thrown me out; besides, someone would call the fire department and there would be a scene— sirens, ladder trucks and all that. And I had to agree that city proprieties did make it difficult for this kind of simple, back-to-nature living.
I tried from time to time to organize a winter trip, but the problem was always the same—I didn’t want to do it alone, and whenever 1 suggested to anyone else that we go out and sleep in the snow, I would get in return — understandably enough — a cold stare. And then about a year ago I found someone who was not just interested, but enthusiastic about the idea. He was Don Young, a suburban Toronto school inspector and naturalist. We made our plans. We would take two summer-weight sleeping bags each, one bag to go inside the other, and a toboggan on which we would haul our gear. But when a couple of worried and solicitous friends asked us bewilderedly why we wanted to do it, we both realized that the truth would sound like lunacy. We couldn’t just say that we wanted to sleep out in a snow-hole; the trip had to have some purpose that would be easier to understand. On the spur of the moment, 1 said we were going up there to listen for wolves . . . wilderness music . . . the essence of the north. To hear wolves properly we had to be outside. Our friends nodded sagely, accepting us back into the world of the sober and the sane. And it seemed such a good idea that Don and I began to regard wolf-listening as the purpose of our trip.
1 remembered then having read an article in the Bulletin of the Federation of Ontario Naturalists that described a winter wolf-trailing trip into Algonquin Park by two members of an august and solemn body known as the Huntsville Wolf-Listeners’ Society. 1 wrote to the writer of the article, Russell Rutter, asking him
where we could find wolves in Algonquin Park. Rutter replied that in the interests of wolf preservation such information wasn't passed out indiscriminately, but he added that if, on investigation, we proved worthy, the Huntsville WolfListeners’ Society would be pleased to provide guides for our trip. So one morning late last winter, when the smoke was rising straight up like plumblines from Huntsville chimneys and the thermometer was playing touch-tag with zero, Don Young and 1, bundled up like caterpillars in cocoons, met Russell Rutter. Rutter, it turned out, is a naturalist, writer and newspaper columnist with a love for wolves and winter bushwhacking.
“Come on,” he said. “We have a meeting of the Huntsville Wolf-Listeners’ .Society gathered to examine you. It will decide whether you can be trusted with information about the whereabouts of wolves.”
We were taken to the home of Abbott Conway, a Huntsville factory manager, and introduced to Conway and his wife.
"Where is the meeting?” Young asked.
“This is it,” Rutter replied.
The Huntsville Wolf-Listeners’ Society turned out to have a membership of four—Rutter, Conway and Conway’s two sturdy Labrador retrievers. Lucky and Prince. Rutter confided now that the society was something he created one day to fill out his Huntsville Forester column, which doesn’t, however, make the society any less genuine, for all four of them really are ardent wolf-listeners.
“Come out and meet the membership committee.” Conway said.
In the backyard we were introduced to Lucky, a spirited and effervescent black, and Prince, a sleek and placid golden. The retrievers sniffed us suspiciously and then climbed all over us. Rutter and Conway nodded approvingly.
“The membership committee has decided you are okay,” Rutter announced. “All you have to do now is sleep in a snow camp and listen to some wolves, and you’ll be eligible for full membership.”
We loaded Conway’s truck with camping gear and Conway put in the bigge .. toboggan 1 have ever seen—a stout hardwood Hudson’s Bay Company model with a two-fool-high prow and a weight unloaded of close to a hundred pounds. Then the six of us climbed into the truck and headed for Algonquin Park. Two hours later we parked on a lumber road, loaded the toboggan and put on our snowshocs. Conway harnessed up the membership committee, stepped out in front to break trail and set off at a trot.
The dogs lunged forward eagerly at his heels, the toboggan purring softly in the crisp snow. I set out at a trot also, to keep up, and on the second step my snowshoes joined in a lovers’ embrace and 1 took a header in the snow. Rutter pulled me back up to my feet, shaking his head anxiously.
"Never on snowshoes before, eh?” he asked.
"Never,” 1 confessed. 1 hadn’t intended to tell them, but 1 didn’t need to, for 1 succeeded in making it obvious.
Conway and the dogs were now lost amid the spruce trees ahead of us and we followed slowly on the toboggan’s trail. The snowshoes were making me use muscles I never knew I had. and 1 tired quickly. But Rutter is a man of tact and diplomacy, and whenever my snowshoes began to drag with fatigue he ordered a stop "to listen for wolves.”
1 had been more fearful of using snowshoes for the first time than 1 had been over the prospect of sleeping out again, but 1 learned with some relief that snowshoeing is not a skill like skiing that requires practice and experience. Snowshoeing skill does develop with experience, but anyone putting on snowshoes for the first time can at least get by. And they are an essential for winter travel in most parts of Canada. Without them, two miles of wading thigh-deep snow—average midwinter snow depth for most of the Canadian north—would be a day’s work. Beginners will find small snowshoes much easier to handle than large ones, and it is well to remember, too. that the crusted, packed snow of late winter provides much easier snowshoeing than the light, unsettled snow-cover of December and January.
As we followed Conway’s toboggan trail, Rutter was continually pointing out animal tracks. There were occasional wolf trails, but what surprised me most was the abundance of marten and fisher signs.
I he last two are mammals usually regarded as rare and they are seldom seen, but we crossed their snow trails repeatedly, as many as ten in a mile.
After about two hours we came to the abandoned ranger’s cabin that Rutter and ( onway use as a headquarters for their wolf studies in the area. Conway had a fire roaring in the stove, and tea and meat sandwiches prepared for us. 1 saw Rutter eyeing me carefully.
Tired, eh? he said. "Ihc first time on snowshoes can be pretty tough. We usually hike in twice as far as this and spend the night out. But when we stop here, sometimes we sleep in the cabin. Maybe we’ve gone far enough, eh?”
Conway had brought, a thermometer and it was zero outside despite a bright sun. It would drop to ten below during the night. Rutter, 1 knew, was being tactfid again and giving us a face-saving way out if we wanted to change our mind about spending the night outdoors. 1 noticed Young eyeing the cabin bunks pensively.
"Yes,” I agreed, “maybe this is far enough.”
So we left our gear in the cabin, rested a while and then went out for a hike of two hours or so later in the afternoon. We found one more wolf trail but Rutter said it was three or four days old. I began to feel a twinge of guilt as 1 thought of the cosy cabin back there waiting for us— maybe it wasn't cricket, but it was reassuring and comforting to know the cabin was there if we wanted to use it. When we got back to it, the sun was low and the white birches were gilded with an orange sheen in the fading light. My aching calf muscles felt as if someone were burning them with cigarette butts. Conway began preparing dinner and Rutter began indoctrinating us in the
difficulties of setting up a camp for a winter night.
“It's a lot of work, you know,” Rutter said. “You have to dig your snow-hole, and a snowshoe isn’t the best of shovels. You have to cut boughs, and it takes a lot of them to make you comfortable, even if you just use them for a mattress and don’t put up a lean-to or windbreak. Then you have to cut firewood—lots and lots of firewood, enough to last all night if you should need it. It’s an hour or two of work. And there’s room for us all to sleep in here.”
Rutter was providing us with another face-saving opportunity. Young was eyeing the cabin bunks again. Conway stepped outside to where the thermometer hung and returned to report it was now two below. And the resolve I had been building up since those nights at RCAF survival school almost collapsed.
“But we came to sleep outside.” I countered, and I thought it sounded rather weak ami hollow.
But it must have sounded convincing to Rutter. “Okay,” he said, “I was just testing you. We have to check the sincerity of people before we let them qualify for the Huntsville Wolf-Listeners’ Society. II you insist, there’s a camp down the trail a quarter of a mile. We slept there a couple ol weeks ago. There arc boughs cut—won’t take much work to make it livable again. It’s just big enough for two. Conway and I will sleep in here.”
I felt as if we were being abandoned to the wolves. But we were committed. There was no way out now.
There was only silence
It was almost dusk when Young and I went down the trail with our sleeping bags and axe. The cold, dry air froze the moisture in our nostrils with a sharp little pinch each time we inhaled. We found Rutter's camp, although it was almost hidden under new snow. It wasn’t much —just a hole a little larger than a double bed dug down to ground level through three feet of snow. The bottom was covered with a foot-thick mat of balsam boughs and there was a big rock at one end: it would reflect heat from a fire. There was no roof except the overhanging branches of spruce that surrounded it.
We took out the balsam boughs, shook the snow off them and relaid them. Then we cut more to give us a thick, springy mattress, because it is as important to have insulation under you as above. We felled a dead spruce and cut it up for firewood. By the time we’d got our fire lit we were so warm from the work we had been doing that we didn’t need it. It felt good, however, after we had been sitting beside it a few minutes and had begun to cool off.
Darkness came quickly, but it was brief because a near-full moon rose almost immediately. and out in the open where the snow reflected the moonlight it was almost bright enough to read a book. We listened for wolves, but there was only silence—-a silence so pure and intense that 1 could hear the beating of my heart. I thought of the times that I had stepped out of a warm office or home into zero air and felt the cold penetrate instantly like a knife, yet we were sitting here as comfortably as if we were home in our own living rooms—the result of having been out in it all day and getting plenty of exercise. 1 was glad we had left the cabin, for the moonlight and the sparkling snow made the forest seem clean and wholesome, as though it had just been laundered and sent back by the cleaners. And I was glad 1 was a Canadian with wilderness country like this to enjoy.
We spread out the sleeping bags, un-
zipping one, shoving another inside it, and then zipping it up again.
“What does the well-dressed woodsman wear to bed?” Young asked.
“The RCAF says strip down to your underwear,” I replied, but I didn’t convince him, or myself.
We took off our mukluks and put on dry socks. Young squirmed into his bag wearing everything else, including his parka. I removed my parka but left on trousers and a couple of sweaters, and I sat beside the fire a few minutes longer, surprised at how warm I was. T hen I crawled in. pulling my woolen toque down over my ears and the neck of the bag up over my chin until only my nose and eyes were exposed.
“The RCAF also says that you can’t freeze to death in your sleep.” 1 told Young. “The cold always wakens you first — unless you’re exhausted. I’m exhausted. How about you?”
Young’s reply was so muffled by folds of sleeping bag around his face that 1 couldn't distinguish what he said.
Despite fatigue I lay awake a long time, perhaps an hour. I was warm, and stayed warm all night, warmer in fact than I have been on many camping trips in late fall using a single sleeping bag. 1 was uncomfortable, too. and Young had the same to report next morning, but the discomfort was of our own making. We had left far too much clothing on. which packed us so tightly in our bags that every movement was a tremendous effort. Putting one sleeping bag inside another itself restricts movement, and for this reason a roomy heavyweight winter bag is better than doubling up two summer bags. But summer bags will do the job if you don't try to wear your whole winter wardrobe inside them.
1 awoke briefly once during the night. The fire was almost out. but it was still glowing red, so I must have slept just an hour or two. In the moonlight I could see a white halo of frost around the neck of my sleeping bag where my breath had frozen. I listened for wolves, but there wasn’t a sound except Young's quiet breathing.
It was greying with dawn and the moon had disappeared when I awoke again. Young woke up a few minutes later.
“Warm enough?” I asked him.
“If I were any warmer I'd be too hot,” he said.
We crawled out and lit a fire, and we were sitting beside it thawing out our boots when Rutter and Conway came along some time later.
“We've come to claim the bodies,” Rutter said. “Did you hear the wolves?”
Wc shook our heads. “There weren't any,” 1 told him.
“Oh yes there were.” he declared. "Several times during the night. One howled for half an hour just across the lake from the cabin.”
Young and I looked at each other sheepishly. We had slept so soundly that we hadn’t heard them.
“Too bad.” Rutter said. "You haven’t qualified, then. We can't have members in the Wolf-Listeners’ Society who muff a wolf-listening opportunity like that one.”
We went back to the cabin for breakfast. Rutter checked the thermometer.
“Eight below,” he said. “That was your trouble . . . too warm. If it had been colder you would have awakened more frequently and heard them. At twenty below you have to keep waking and keep your fire going."
"We'll try to qualify again.” Young said. And we have solemnly promised ourselves that we will.
"Pray for at least twenty below,” Rutter advised.
We’re doing that too.