It's cold out. Well not really, not compared to how it has been. Walking in the damp chill on dry crusty ice when the sun has set, sets the mind on a certain track. There is always the lingering awareness of the creeping cold, no matter how well dressed you are. In the city, in comfort, we only experience small tastes of this, environmental amuse-bouche. This is perhaps a shame, because there is certainly something to be gained from thinking in the cold.
I ventured into the wilderness a couple of weeks ago. My comrades and I sought to pit ourselves against the elements in a feat of winter camping. Of course, our collective schedules permitted only one night of this, so really any claim on my part to having truly experienced winter camping or the ferocity of nature would be dubious at best. I will merely try to give an account of our adventure and infer from it some sketched generalities. Surely someone with greater experience and sharper analysis could provide something more riveting, but they might also want you to pay for it.
We set out on a Saturday morning, stopping in Perth to fill up on grease and coffee. The destination, Frontenac Provincial Park, lay ahead of us at the end of a winding slippery country road. I drove with a warring mix of caution and impatience. The sun was getting warmer.
The original plan had been to camp at a site close to a parking lot on the far side of the park. We had packed our gear accordingly, expecting that the 200 metre walk to the campsite would make this the equivalent of car camping. The two-burner Coleman stove, extra bottles of propane, cans and cans of food, a hefty espresso pot, shovels, firewood: all of this was squeezed into unbalanced packs and a large plastic food barrel, or strapped precariously to an improvised sled.
Hitch number one. There was already a couple at the campsite we wanted. This was not a total loss, as each "pod" as they call them actually contains three to four campsites about twenty metres apart. It did raise the possibility that we would be in close proximity to strangers, who might not take too kindly to our carousing. This site also entailed another 45 minute drive down more slushy roads. The thought of getting back into the car was anathema to our growing enthusiasm.
Another option presented itself. An empty pod of campsites, not too far from the office. It was a glorious day, why not spend it walking in the woods instead of sitting in a car? Wouldn't it be nice to have a site all to ourselves? We were told that the site was a one to two hour hike away. This didn't seem so bad, given the warm weather and our hefty breakfast. Resolved, we loaded up, locked the cars, and hit the trail.
The trail was groomed, which offered a relatively easy walking surface for boots. We frantically stripped off layers as the heat of exertion took its toll. Soon I was wearing a toque and a t-shirt, trying not to sweat too much. After about an hour we reached the junction where we had to set off east into the woods.
Hitch the second. This new trail was not a ski trail, it had not been groomed. Judging by the snow, it had not even been travelled in at least the last three days. We actually walked right past it, so inconspicuous it was. We paused to re-arrange gear. I relinquished the awkward sled. As the only person with snowshoes, the responsibility for breaking trail was solely mine. We set off, slightly less enthusiastic.
It was slow going, even with snowshoes. The powder was deep; the snow to the side of the narrow track was bottomless. The two snow shovels jutting skywards from the sides of my pack were constantly snaring themselves on overhanging branches, jerking me backwards or showering me with crackling twigs and ice. We split up. The others fell behind as they struggled with the temperamental sled on this increasing hilly terrain.
Richard and I trudged on, ever step a tiny victory over the chorus of objections from my weary legs. We ran out of water, had no idea how far behind the others might be. I drank from a fetid stream, the stench of decay hitting my nose before I even stooped down. I ate snow and a frozen granola bar. We checked the map obsessively, interpreting it wishfully only to be proven wrong by the endless expanse before us.
I have never been so happy to see a picnic table. Even with the site in sight, the hardest steps were the last dozen.
We made camp with limp arms and haggard breath. It was later in the day than we had planned; our trudging through the woods had taken three hours and the sun had lost its former warmth. The plan had been to make a quinzee, but by the time we had the tents up, and lunch/dinner on the go, it was getting quite dark. The pile of snow we'd amassed lay un-excavated.
Our firewood, hauled all the way in a flimsy sack, was burning quickly. We scavenged for deadfall, a difficult task when everything is buried under a foot and a half of snow. Fortunately there were enough half-burnt logs at some of the other sites to keep us stocked for the night. We huddled around the fire, drinking in the heat.
The fire pit was right on the edge of the water. As twilight turned to night, the wind picked up ever so slightly, and fine snow began to find its way to us from on high. It was not very cold, barely cold enough for snow even, and our exposed position did not seem to pose a threat. Relentlessly the stuff came down, covering empty bowls and climbing the walls of the tent like some kind of creeping lichen. It created a gently hiss on the inside of the tent. White noise.
As I fumbled my way into my sleeping bag, I had a thought of us somehow being slowly buried during the night, waking breathless under a mountain of ice, scrabbling at the frigid sarcophagus with brittle bleeding fingertips. Luckily, the eminent tent designers over at Mountain Hardware had a similar premonition, and saw it fit to design the fly in such a way as to shrug of snow as it accumulated. Crisis averted. I nestled down in my seemingly threadbare bag and passed out. I think it was verging on 9 o'clock.
I really did not relish getting up in the morning. Everything hurt, everything was cold. The residual warmth from hiking had taken the edge of the previous evening, but sleep had restored my body temperature to more moderate levels. I tried to bustle about, setting down to making coffee and melting snow for water. My hands were bare. My soaking gloves had been left hanging on the inside of the fly and had frozen solid overnight. Trying to put one on reminded me of reaching into a bucket of ice. I found that with bare hands and bad circulation I could get about two minutes of solid usage out of my hands for every minute I kept them in my pockets. This worked for a while, but touching cold metal and brushing snow off of the pots took its toll and I could feel a bit of the real cold sinking in. I stood useless, only able to stare at the work needing to be done.
This, more than anything, is the most humbling aspect of winter. If our opposable thumbs distinguish us, if our nimble use of cleverly crafted tools makes us human, then the cold is the almighty equalizer. I felt like a cat who knows the mouse is under the stove and knows he will never catch it there. Finally, Dave lent me a pair of mitts and I was able to awkwardly brew up some "snow soup."
Breakfast was a bit of bust. I think we were all already dreading the trip back. The output of the old Coleman wasn't what it used to be, and the bacon took forever to cook. We ended up putting a bunch of it right on the grill over the fire, which at least made it taste cooked. My bannock was even slower to cook, even with the flames licking it, and by the time it was close to being ready, everyone had eaten their fill of beans and bacon. So we packed up, and cleaned up, and shouldered our loads.
New Plan. Take advantage of the frozen lake to get back to the park office more directly on level ground. Problem. Near the shore, the lake was alarmingly unfrozen, or at least there were ambiguous layers of slush and water under the snow pack. After an uneasy start, we found ourselves bushwhacking on terrain that was dry if not entirely level.
I carved a path around the lake, trying to avoid too much climbing. Here the snow was deepest. I stepped of the crest of a hill and found myself almost up to my elbows in powder. Dry branches clawed at us and clung to dangling webbing. We drank sparingly, remembering the day before.
On the drive home I thought a lot about the things I take for granted, things like water and being dry and warm. This is not some Christmas miracle think-of-how-lucky-we-are piece. It just struck me how different it must be to live in some kind of metabolism with the extreme. Extreme cold or extreme heat, both temper the rhythm of life in a way that is almost entirely alien to the life of the city slicker. In the city, you can more or less do anything you want at any time. Of course there are exceptions, like closing time at the bar and the Sundays of yore, but these are different from the kind of restriction posed by the cold.
To experience the cold is to experience the very real possibility of death in a way that is solely abstract to the denizens of climate control. The smell of winter in the nostrils of any creature is the smell of austerity, of desperation. The calm of winter, its silence, is only wholly peaceful when you begin to succumb to it.
It is strange then that we should celebrate winter, that you can buy any kind of decoration with a snowflake on it. Snowflakes are beautiful, but their beauty does nothing to protect you from the reality they accompany. To take pleasure from them, to delight in the way that they dance in the air, to reach for them with your tongue is nothing short of a form of widely accepted madness.
It is a particularly human madness, a survival madness, like cabin fever. I think you could point to this delight in the face of certain hardship as the source of faith. Perhaps it is necessary, an automatic stress relief response to environmental pressures that would otherwise have driven the species into a self-destructive despondency. This then begs the question, is central air the key to the Enlightenment?