February 13th-15th, 2016
Testing our new winter gear and our mettle against blisteringly cold temperatures in Algonquin Provincial Park
We had been planning to go camping for the February long weekend ever since we ordered our new Atuk Alaskan winter tent and Kni-Co Packer trail stove. That’s the only part of the plan we actually stuck to. Originally our goal had been to finish our winter freight toboggans and head out to some quiet and remote piece of crown land for a weekend of relaxation and exploration, but despite spending many long and frustrating hours in a vicious battle with a sewing machine (me) and confusion about placement of the pulling bars (Andrew), we still hadn’t quite managed to finish all of the rigging to get our sleds ready in time. Then, we checked the forecast: Highs of -35C for the entire weekend. For safety’s sake, we decided against wandering into the bush with a tent we had yet to even unroll completely, and chose to head to Mew Lake campground in Algonquin Provincial Park, where we knew there would be other people around to save us in case of a catastrophic tent fire or frozen digits. Also, the campground has a “comfort station”, and pooping in the warmth of a heated washroom is always a bonus when mere minutes of skin exposure can cause frostbite.
So, yeah, we wimped out a bit. We generally aren’t car-campers, or even base-campers for that matter, but considering what we were up against in terms of learning a new skill in rather adverse conditions, we took the easy way out. And we really weren’t prepared to tie on the lashings to our toboggans with numb fingers in the middle of nowhere. I was a bit disappointed, but I must concede that Andrew was correct when he pointed out that we could be in a really dangerous situation if anything went wrong and we were miles from civilization. I think he’s still upset about getting stuck on Rain Lake Road back in November. Oh well. No matter. We were still getting out, and that’s what was important.
It took us several hours to drive up to the park as we had to make a few stops along the way, and once we arrived at Mew Lake and chose a site, it was close to five p.m. so we immediately began tramping down our tent area with our snowshoes. My toes were numb almost instantly – I really need to chuck my Sorel Caribous and get a different style of winter boot – but after pausing to defrost them in the car, we unfolded our new tent for the first time and set about pegging down the four corners. We had purchased two different types of stakes: Bulldog 12″ snow stakes from MEC and expandable Coghlan’s cheapies from SAIL, and the cheap ‘n’ cheerful Coghlan’s stakes proved to be better for anchoring in crust-coated fluff snow. Once the corners were pegged, we took our extendable fibreglass and aluminum painter’s pole and set it on a block of wood in the centre of the tent, which was vaguely beginning to resemble a shelter and not just a giant canvas tarp. I steadied the pole while Andrew went around guying out the side walls to any available tree that fell within a reasonable angle to the tent. Naturally, there wasn’t a handy tree for every guy-out point, so we gathered some sturdy 3 ft sticks to use as pickets for the remaining sections. We shovelled some snow down on top of the stakes and it wasn’t perfect, but not bad for a first attempt with wooden fingers. Our stove set up was easier, because we had already done this twice to burn off the manufacturing oils before using it in a closed tent, but for some reason it was really difficult to get a fire going. I usually call Andrew some version of FireChiefRayMears, but he did not live up to his illustrious title this time. He just couldn’t get the thing going. We had purchased a bag of hardwood in Dwight because the park wood is generally wet and terrible, but he had much greater success lighting the soggy spruce/pine/fir (scientific name: SPF, according to the Former Fire Chief) kindling sold at the campground than with the hardwood he had split into small sticks. While he was cursing, I set up our sleeping area and kitchen and by the time everything was inside the tent the wood stove was roaring away and we finally sat down to have a beer. With temperatures hovering around -37C it was impossible to warm up unless we kept our toes nearly inside the stove. This was all a very tiring process so we reheated some cassoulet and I made us each a hot buttered rum before we bundled ourselves into our extravagantly layered sleeping system and went to bed, hoping to wake up in the morning (Andrew’s mom called us before we reached the park and said, “Don’t drink too much and then pass out and die of hypothermia in your sleep!” or something to that effect, which was a rather – ahem – sobering thought, and made us worry unnecessarily about our single beer and rum each, but what are moms for, am I right? Love you, Sherri).
We woke as the sun was starting to illuminate our tent, emerging from our frosty balaclavas and mummy bags with ice forming on our eyelids like baby seals poking their heads out of a breathing hole in the Arctic Ocean ice. Well, Andrew emerged. I checked the thermometer in our tent and it was a positively frigid -42C so I remained cocooned until I felt the warmth of the fire from the stove. Forty below! I don’t think I’ve ever experienced temperatures quite so chilly in my entire life. The cold, clear air made all of the snow sparkle and the sky was ever so blue, and we took a few photos of our chimney spewing smoke and our slightly wonky guy lines before rushing back in to make coffee.
Andrew drove over to the comfort station and the wood shed while I began cooking up some Redi-Crisp bacon and pancakes, and just when I thought it seemed to be taking him a long time to get back, he arrived and regaled a terrible tragedy involving his Mazda’s front bumper and a snowbank. In the campground. I must again stress that my Rain Lake trip ended with no damage to the car, though it was more remote and we did have to abandon it for a week. I will say no more on the subject, as I hate to say a toad a so, except to mention that Andrew is an excellent sport and didn’t let it ruin the rest of the weekend for us. We were soon distracted from our troubles by the appearance of a red fox, who came so close to the tent to check us out his nose was almost inside. A bit too curious for our liking, so we gave some half-hearted yells and he trotted off to find some campers who were less selfish with their bacon.
After a leisurely breakfast, we discussed what to do with ourselves. We aren’t used to base-camping, and it was still so damn cold and my boots so useless that after a short stroll around the campground we chose to hang out at our site and improve our living quarters. We began this by hanging our sleeping bags and blankets outside in the sun to remove frost, adjusting the guy lines attached to the trees, moving the pickets around to get a tighter pitch, building a better float for the stove out of green branches we found on a recently fallen tree, hanging a drying line at the highest point in the tent, and removing our sleeping gear in order to haul in more snow on a tarp so we could raise our bed by about eight inches.
This worked remarkably well! I’d read about building a raised sleeping platform, but figured it wouldn’t be much use if it was only a few inches higher than the rest of the snow floor, but this small increase in height made a world of difference in terms of comfort inside the tent. We were low enough to be out of the sauna-like temperatures in the peak, yet tall enough to sit on the bed in a perfectly comfortable 18C away from the stove. After a lunch of Dutch split pea soup (I call it “Three Little Piggies” as it contains ham hocks, smoked sausage, and bacon) and a round of applause for our ingenuity, resourcefulness, and first rate bushcraft skills, we went for another little walk and then settled in for a couple of mostly-defrosted beers.
Andrew made some lovely candle holders, I wrapped up some potatoes in foil with salt, pepper, oil, and butter, and we feasted on potatoes and steak for our Valentine’s Day dinner. I had brought along supplies for chocolate fondue, but we were both exhausted from doing nothing except trying to stay warm all day so we nixed that idea and had some Snickers and tea instead. I made extra tea to put in our Nalgenes to use as hot water bottles, and explicitly reminded Andrew to remove the tea bag from his bottle before putting it in his sleeping bag so it wouldn’t leak. He did not heed this warning, and as I went to crawl into bed I noticed a large puddle had formed on our heavy down quilt and was very cross indeed. This grave error forced us to hang out the top quilt to dry for half an hour before we could settle in for the night. Some attempt at snuggling was made, but as we were each cinched so tightly into our mummy bags like two burritos nestled in the snow this proved fruitless for warmth and for comfort. I fell asleep pretty much instantly anyway. We woke up once feeling chilly, but that was easily remedied when I turned our down quilt the correct way up and tucked us back in, and when we awoke for real in the morning we were reasonably toasty and not as weirded out by the whole eyeball-freezing phenomenon.
Once again, Andrew braved the cold to get the stove lit while I courageously stayed put in my sleeping bag. We were starting to get the hang of regulating the burn in the stove, which was encouraging, and getting out of bed wasn’t as difficult as it had been the previous morning. It was also a positively balmy -27C outside, and I suggested taking our coffee out of doors to enjoy the morning. After a few moments of this we agreed that yes, -27C is much more agreeable than -42C, but still not exactly mild, so back in the tent we went to prepare waffles for breakfast with oodles of butter and syrup.
After breakfast, it was time to tear down the tent. After packing away everything inside, we removed the stove, untied the guylines from the trees, shoveled out the stakes and pickets, took out the centre pole, and managed to fold the tent up into a reasonable approximation of its original packaged shape. Once cool, our stove was dismantled and emptied, and the pipe and shelf were nested inside the fire box. Our leftover firewood was hung from a tree branch for the next campers, and the pickets and stove floats left leaning against the same tree. Total time to break down camp was less than forty minutes. Not bad for beginners! Stopping to drink a beer that was rapidly turning to slush probably slowed us down some.
Once our car was fully loaded, we decided to go for a short walk by the Madawaska River, where we had hiked previously a little over a month before. The usual Marten Photographer Squad was patiently awaiting its subject, but we had no interest in talking to them so we wandered down the backpacking trail to the river and took a few photos. There was still quite a bit of running water… more than I was expecting considering how cold it had been. We weren’t very motivated to continue on, so after a brief rest we walked back the way we came to our car and left the campground.
On our drive home we noticed a car stuck in the snow just off of HWY 60, its owners frantically trying to dig it out with nothing but a windshield scraper. We turned around and ran across the highway to join another concerned citizen who had also stopped to lend a shovel, and had their car clear in about three minutes. They seemed rather embarrassed but very thankful. No need to get embarrassed, in my opinion. This is Canada, after all, and we’ve all been stuck in the snow at some point. Heck, we had to send a satellite message back in November to be rescued when our car was hopelessly trapped 30km down a logging road. It happens to the best of us.
The rest of the drive home was no fun at all as there was tons of traffic and a mild snowstorm slowing us down. Heading home after camping always sucks. No matter how cold, or rainy, or snowy, or how vicious the blackflies (here’s a friendly reminder of those springtime darlings) and mosquitoes, being outside is always preferable to the dull greyness of the city. And there weren’t any bugs to deal with this time!
I think we can call our first winter camping trip a success. We didn’t struggle too much to set up the tent or stove, we still have all of our fingers/toes/ears/noses, we didn’t burn down the tent or set fire to the forest, we slept comfortably, and we ate well. The cold certainly made things challenging, but inside our tent we were nice and cosy. And hey, if we can do this when the mercury drops to -42C, we can easily handle whatever else winter can throw at us! It’s so great to be able to go camping during the hardwater season. I still miss the canoe, but, as always, I’m just happy to get outside. Next time we’ll be going elsewhere, though. I’m already planning our next winter escape.