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|02-07-2012, 04:16 PM||#1|
Join Date: Apr 2005
30 day winter camping trip. When I'm 64.
If you have nothing to keep you busy for the next few minutes you might enjoy reading this.
The old cabin stood at the edge of a lake. The years had caused its roof to sag but it still provided decent shelter. In the black, frozen night an alert passer-by might have noticed a faint glow at the window. But there were no passers-by, in fact there wasn’t another living soul within miles of the place. The nearest road, if you could call it that, was three lakes and a long portage trail away. The faint orange glow was made by a single wax candle. Neil, unable to sleep any longer, had gotten up well before dawn and had lit a fire before going down to the creek to get water for coffee. Now, while he busied himself with his packsack a dull light began to filter in through the frosted windowpanes. Dave, in his sleeping bag, could feel the heat from the stove on his nose but it was the fresh coffee that got him going. Designer coffee as Neil liked to call it. Black, hot, addictive and delicious.
An hour later they had left the cabin as it had mostly sat for decades, empty, save for a pair of bunks, a picnic table and two kitchen chairs. Down on the frozen lake, a bowl of oatmeal under their belts, the ‘boys’ fastened their snowshoes. At dawn the air was crisp
and the smoke of the dying fire rose straight up out of the chimney through the sun’s rays which, cut to pieces by the pine branches, spread out like huge spokes. With their packs cinched tight they headed up the lake due north walking slowly, not saying much, each alone with his thoughts, waiting to warm up, getting an effortless flow going. Somewhere on the east shore a woodpecker was drumming, when it stopped you could hear the echo on the other side of the lake.
This was the beginning; the first stretch of what Neil hoped would be the trip of a lifetime. Today they would hike through familiar territory, a half dozen or so miles, mostly on lakes, white empty canvasses, stretching, curving, silent save for the tinkle of snow crystals blown by the relentless breeze.
By the time they reached the north end of Adam’s Lake Dave had his toque off and his jacket open. Now it was time to divest as he always said. Packs off and anoraks stowed, they took a bearing on the sun. It was at 235 degrees, roughly 10 degrees ‘later’ than when they started.
-That was quick, only 10 degrees.
As always time was measured in degrees of the sun’s arc. At first, years ago, they would correct for declination and translate into normal time units of hours and minutes. Now they just left it in degrees.
It’ll take at least 30 degrees to get across to the opening, they would say.
We’ve still got about 45 degrees until it starts dark.
(With 360 degrees for each revolution of the earth on its axis an hour was represented very roughly by a 15 degree shift in the sun.)
They’d started that 30 years earlier and never tired of it. The only weakness was that you couldn’t use it on a cloudy day.
Now it was time to climb 2 kilometres to the next lake, 500 vertical feet up through unbroken snow. With a heavy pack, and their packs were especially heavy on that day, such a thing was never easy. No matter how hard you trained or what kind of shape you thought you were in it was always a grunt. This was going to take a good 15 degrees. There was no sense at all in trying to go fast. Slow, deliberate patience and a love of the forest in winter, not to mention a sense of humour, made it a Zen thing. At day’s end, around the fire with a belt or two of single malt behind you it made for the ultimate achievement in a life with too many achievements. So, in anticipation of that feeling the two climbed, very slowly, taking turns breaking trail and stopping often for short rests. They didn’t speak but were linked together. Linked by hundreds and hundreds of miles on the trail. Linked also by decades, Christmas hockey games on Lac Claire, family get-togethers, and by their youth, so far behind them but still present as if they were still in their twenties. And although they wouldn’t say so out loud they were linked by pride. Proud just to be doing this, still. Of course everyone tried to talk them out of going. A month long winter camping trip? A couple of sixty-four year old grey beards? What if one of them had a heart attack or something.
The best part of a trip like this is you got to do it more than once. The first time is in the planning, seemingly endless and as meticulous as you want. Months ago when Dave and Neil sat down for the first time in Dave’s living room with a black book (hardcover, two hundred blank pages) they were a little bit awed by their audacity. Of course there were many challenging problems to deal with. One of the most interesting ones that needed solving was that of food. After much deliberation they decided to make three caches which they took in during December, before the snow but after freeze-up. Three long day trips, parking the car on logging roads, crossing the ice with sacks of frozen meat, chocolate, dried fruit, candy, coffee, scotch and other essentials, scouting out a suitable camping spot then setting to work. An absolute squirrel and bear proof cache has to hang six feet from the tree trunk, six feet from the branch its hanging from and at least ten feet from the ground. There aren’t as many suitable trees as you might think. While they were at it why not put in a supply of wood, nicely sawn up and piled neatly on pine stringers?
The sweat was running freely down Neil’s back in little rivulets. He could feel it trickle down between his buttocks. But no real fatigue to speak of, at least they knew how to set a proper pace. Now they were near the top, soon they’d feel the wind again as they approached the lake. Then they’d stop and put their anoraks back on and of course, eat. In fact they ate every ten minutes or so, a piece of dried fruit or some candy, as long as it had sugar, to prevent the muscles from becoming depleted.
Out on the lake the wind was really blowing hard. The west wind came at them from out of a long wide bay. Hoods up, drawstrings pulled tight they scooted across. There was only had a kilometre to go before they entered a closed-in marshy area that would offer both shelter from the wind and easy snowshoeing.
“That’s an awful lot of scotch”, Neil was saying.
They were in Dave’s living room figuring out supplies.
“Two good shots a day each makes 8 ounces per day times 30 days makes 240 ounces at 26 ounces per bottle or just under 9 bottles.”
“You can carry it. I’ll just drink it.”
Now it was good to know that tonight, when all the wood was cut, the tent set up, a bright fire pushing back the darkness at the edge of a frozen swamp, and the meat was thawing on a bed of coals, they’d relax, barefoot, before the fire, with a good slug of single malt. However, before that happy little image became a reality there was still a ways to go.
Half a dozen miles and sixty degrees later they were campsite hunting. Packs off, they slowly cruised along a chain of tiny beaver ponds that drained into the lake. They would only stay here for one night so they wouldn’t be too fussy. Thanks to the beavers’ work there was lots of dead and dry wood standing, having been choked off by the rising water. This wood was easy to saw down and would be a short carry to the protection of the thick forest. The best campsites don’t offer a view but once it’s dark you just want to be out of the wind. While Dave sawed Neil set up the campsite. With the tent quickly set up, he began to shovel. Before too long he had a large, circular area cleared right down to the ground. Just off-centre would go the fire. The next job was so pleasant they always did it together: cutting a drinking hole in the ice. Besides, by now they were very thirsty. Back out on the lake Dave shoveled clear a small area of wind packed snow. Then Neil took over with the axe, chopping. As the hole got deeper he had to cut it wider in order to swing the axe. After a few minutes of chopping he had excavated a cubic foot of ice. One last swing of the axe and he broke through. The water came flowing upward until the hole was full. Even after the hole had filled up the water continued to flow upwards and outwards. By next morning there’d be a slushy area at least twenty feet across. Shards of ice tinkled in the tin cup as they drank the cold water greedily. With a four-liter pot filled for soup they snow-shoed back to the campsite for the most tedious job of the day: sawing and carrying logs.
This job suddenly became a lot easier many years ago in Manitoba. Dave had bust the axe trying to chop a huge tumor out of a dead oak tree. He figured on carrying it out strapped to his pack and then making a bowl out of it. Before the axe’s demise they used to cut logs into short pieces and split them. Without the axe they quickly found out that you could get a huge blaze for a lot less work by burning four foot logs unsplit. The trick was to pile the thickest logs two or three high in a wide v and build the fire in front. Before long you had a wall of flame four feet high. A white man’s fire they liked to call it. Build it big and sit far away, reclining, toasty warm all over. Ever since that paradigm shift they had great fires with less work. It was still tedious work sawing and carrying but at least it was a lot less than in their early days.
For an hour they sawed the felled maples into four-foot lengths and in the dying light carried the pieces to their campsite. Once the wood was brought in and stacked neatly it gave them a feeling of having money in the bank, effort stored for future use. Now they had reached a favourite time of day: no more work to do, everything in place for a relaxing evening but best of all was the light. To the east the sky was jet black, but to the west there was a rosy glow starkly silhouetting the trees. The glow and the deepening darkness emphasized the damp chill that had crept in. That would soon be blotted out by the fire that Dave was building. A base layer of birch bark, harvested earlier in the day, then tiny twigs, then small branches. Beside that, sticks lay roughly into three piles: small, medium and large. A match was struck producing a feisty little blaze of white light followed by a cool yellow flame that touched the birch bark that quickly flared up and engulfed the twigs. Within minutes they had a six-foot wall of flame to which they added more and more dried sticks. Next came the smallest logs criss-crossed and soon after they had a serious white man’s fire. There was still a glow of light off to the west but it had lost all hint of its former colour, it was now a very deep blue. Sitting back with a generous serving of scotch Neil could feel relief and pleasure flood through his entire body. It was the first time that day he’d taken the weight off his frame.
Back in Dave’s living room they were trying to figure out the logistics of a month of traveling through the bush.
Neil was saying,
“There’s no way we’re going to want to set up a new camp every day”
“or carry full packs through the bush”, added Dave.
“I think we should have a series of base camps and do three or four day trips from
each one and then move on to the next base camp”
“So then our caches should be where we figure on setting up each base
camp. That way our packs’ll be lighter when we move house”.
Six topographic maps were taped together on the wall.
“This looks like a perfect area for camp 1”.
Neil was pointing to a spot about 15 miles north of the cabin. It did look perfect, a meandering creek surrounded by almost a square mile of marsh about 100 meters north of a lake. That meant they would cross the lake then go up the creek a short ways which would then open up into the marsh. At the edge of the marsh they would find a spot in the trees out of the wind. It wasn’t far back to the lake for water. The most important consideration was that there was always lots of standing dry wood at the border between a forest and a marsh.
“If we overnight somewhere around here we’ll only have a couple of hours of
easy travel before setting up a base camp” Dave pointed out.
“So do we leave a cache there or do we carry a week’s supply of food fifteen
miles from the cabin?”
“I say we carry”
“But don’t you think we’ll want to use that camp on our way back to the cabin”?
“Who says we have to come back to our starting point? We could plan on coming
out to the highway somewhere around here”
On and on they went. It was like turning a smooth stone over endlessly, caressingly in your hand. Studying the maps, imagining routes, determining cache sights. Sometimes they wondered which was more fun, planning the trip or going on it.
“Going on it, definitely”.
Dave threw another log onto the fire and was rummaging through the food bag.
“What’ll it be tonight? Sirloin steak or lamb chops? Or perhaps Monsieur would
prefer rondelles of filet mignon?”
“How about a bit of all three? Mixed grill Americana.”
Dave’s best phoney British accent: “A very wise decision, sir. I’m sure even the
chef shall wish to join you in your gluttony.”
Soon the meat was thawing on the grill near the fire. They felt great: the tent was up, they’d had two huge bowls of potato soup with noodles, there was enough wood for a long evening and for next morning’s fire. They were warm, dry and comfortable; a little tired and faced only the prospect of a delicious supper followed by a starlit walk for water. Then they would crawl into their high-tech sleeping bags in their high-tech tent for a night of blissful sleep.
“What’s the temp Dave, any change?”
“Steady at minus fifteen”
“Oh oh, down 25 points”
Right away Neil was up on his feet, checking the sky,
“No clouds in sight, after supper when we get water we’ll see what the wind’s doing out on the lake”.
The weather was a constant topic of interest. They never stopped checking the barometer, the wind direction, the temperature and the clouds for clues of foul weather.
‘We have to be prepared for three types of weather’, Neil was saying, ‘extreme cold, which is the easiest, a blizzard, which would be fun if we’re ready for it, and the winter camper’s worst possible nightmare: rain.’ During one of their many planning sessions they had pondered the possibility of rain and decided to take rain gear. If it ever did rain they would simply cut a huge wood supply and keep a hot fire going until it stopped. If the temperature went down to thirty or fourty below it would be business as usual. Cold, but still business as usual. A blizzard however, was a serious concern.
‘Okay, Dave. If the wind’s howling and the snow’s coming down so hard you can’t see twenty feet in front of you where’s the only place you’d want to be?’
‘In my bag in a solid tent in a sheltered spot. Anything else would be downright unpleasant if not crazy.’
‘So what would we for food if we were supposed to be moving to our next cache on day one of a three day blow? Even if we have food we wouldn’t be able to cook it.’
‘Then we should make sure we always have a two day supply of food that doesn’t need cooking: stuff like dried fruit, chocolate and sausage. We won’t need that much food if we’re just laying in our sleeping bags and we can keep water bottles with snow in our bags for water.’
Neil was imagining laying all day in a tent, warm, dry and fed. Safe while the wind raged in the tree tops.
‘Eventually you’d have to go for a piss’.
‘Actually, it’d be kinda neat to go for little walks in a blizzard, even go out on a lake’
‘As long as you didn’t get lost’.
‘So, what should we do tomorrow? If it stays clear it might not be bad going up behind these cliffs, the view’ll be amazing.’
Dave had his headlamp focused on the 1:50,000 topo map spread out on his knees and was counting contour intervals.
‘Eighteen, nineteen, twenty. Wow! It’s over two thousand feet up to the top. We’ll have to leave early’.
‘Good thing we’ve got lots of wood cut’
‘The most obvious route is up this creek bed for a ways then we can cut strait east between these two hills and then head back almost due south to the highest point.’ Tracing the route with his pencil he figured out loud , ‘2k to the turn, 3 k east then 2 and half to where we stop, all uphill, especially this bit in the middle. That makes at least 15k both ways breaking trail uphill for half. I’d say five hours to get there, a half hour there if its warm and three and half hours back.’
The planning of their month long itinerary was centered around the day trip. With no packs on their backs and camp already set up they would set out early in the morning equipped with map and compass and a food supply. With wood already cut they could stay out until it was getting dark, wandering, exploring. After a couple of days they used their existing trails to extend the range of their wanderings. After five or six days they were ready to move on to the next base camp. The key to the trip was in choosing good base-camp sites. They had spent countless hours scouring the topo maps looking for likely spots. Aside from the usual necessities of protection from the wind, access to good water and plenty of firewood it was important that the site be surrounded by interesting geography.
‘Here’s a spot’. Dave was standing before the ‘map wall’ they had made by piecing together twenty or so topo maps and taping them to the wall in Neil’s basement. ‘Probably lots of standing dead wood, a quick jaunt for water and the ground’s flat for at least 300 meters back from the marsh so we’ll be out of the wind’.
It never ceased to amaze them just how much you could tell about an area you’d never seen just by studying the map with an experienced eye.
‘And look at these hills and all these little lakes to the west. You could spend three or four days cruising through there’
‘Then you’d have a trail in half way to the next base camp.’ Dave pencilled a bold ‘x’ on the map while Neil was looking for a route in from the highway.
‘I’m sure I can get us permission to use this logging road here and then we’d only have to haul our supplies three miles of which two are across lakes.’
Neil was the expert with the telephone. With two or three calls he’d have someone on the line who could give him information about logging roads, logging activity, the location of trapper cabins and all sorts of useful knowledge. All it took was this opening: ‘Hello, my name is Doctor Luckhurst and I’m planning a month long winter expedition in your area’ and the person, usually more than happy for the diversion from their usual workload, was keen to help. He had a note book full of names and numbers he’d collected over the years. For example, the name of the regional director of selective logging operations for Lac Nominingue-Mount Laurier region had been changed three times over the past twenty years.
It looked as if the storm they’d planned (hoped) for was on its way. The dawn had been clear and cold but the barometer had dropped a whopping 100 points since the night before. Now, as they made their way up a long ravine with huge cliffs on either side the sky was covered with a grey film of cloud. The wind had shifted, now it was straight out of the east. With heavy packs they labored up a moderate incline that, according to the map, was supposed to bring them out onto a broad plain were a brook cut a meandering path. Most importantly, they’d placed their second cache three miles further along. “Three more miles, at this rate we’ll be setting up in a blizzard”. The first snowflakes were beginning to swirl and the wind was moaning in the treetops. The barometer was still dropping. It was only one o’clock (in spite of their reckoning system based on the sun’s position Neil kept a watch buried deep in his pack) but the clouds were so thick it was like four in the afternoon. The snow was finding its way down inside their anorak collars.
“Time to batten down the hatches”, Neil had his hood up and was tightening all his drawstrings.
They continued onwards into the thickening storm, heads bowed, compass out constantly, checking their bearings every minute. They weren’t worried, sunset wasn’t for another four hours and they’d be at the cache in two at the most. In any case, if worse came to worse they could put the tent up anywhere and just crawl in. Besides, it was only minus 3 degrees. Still, the wind was picking up quite a bit and the going was beginning to get pretty heavy.
“How’re ya doin’ Dave?” Neil’s voice was swept away by the wind. They had slowed right down. Dave could feel yesterday’s day trip in his thighs and his left calf had started to burn a half mile earlier. According to his estimate they only had another mile until the cache. The only problem was they’d never see it now. They were in a total white-out, the snow was thicker and heavier than they’d ever imagined. Worst of all, they were soaked to the skin and probably were carrying five pounds of snow and water. Plus, they knew full well that as soon as they stopped they’d start to chill. So, on they plodded through the thickening wet snow, covering a mere half kilometre an hour. Finally, they called a halt. Above them, in the treetops, the wind was screeching. Once their decision was made they had to act fast. With their packs off, they took the tent out of its bag and quickly unrolled it. Before the roof could get buried under the wet snow Dave had the waterproof fly over it. Neil threw the packs down on top to keep the whole thing from blowing away. Within minutes the tent was up and they were inside, stripping off their wet clothing, stowing it inside the tent bag – they’d deal with their soon-to-be-frozen garments later. Out came mercifully dry socks, underwear, polar jackets and most importantly, sleeping bags.
“Now what”? Neil wanted to know. They’d been laying in their bags getting warm for about fifteen minutes.
“We thank our lucky stars that we’re in here and not out there” They were both a little shaken. Never in their wildest imaginings had they conceived of a blizzard of such violence.
“Five hundred bucks!!! No way!!! We’re hardly going up Mount Everest” Dave had needed a lot of persuading to part with his half for the tent. Now, however, Neil didn’t think it was the best time to point out just how safe they were inside the tent that indeed had been tested (and proven worthy, presumably) on Mount Everest.
They’d filled both water bottles with wet snow and had them each in their bags slowly melting. The light was beginning to dim as they shared a bar of Belgian chocolate and a bag of roasted almonds. All in all they were in pretty good shape. Warm and dry they had enough food to last three days and they were less than a kilometer from their cache. Best of all, when they had made the cache last December they had stacked up on stringers a good supply of wood.
In the meantime it was important to start drying out their wet clothing. Fortunately, everything was synthetic, either polar or goretex, and didn’t hold all that much water. Their five hundred dollar tent came equipped with a hammock of mesh just below the roof so after Neil wrung the water out Dave laid their pieces of clothing out flat on the mesh. The idea was that their body heat would slowly cause the water to evaporate.
The wind and snow continued unabated all that night.
TO BE CONTINUED
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