I thought rain was bad
I've only ever done summer camping before. When you summer camp, you're going because it's going to be fun: canoeing, camp fires, swimming in the lake. The nightmare of any summer camping trip was rain – it ruined everything, turning a fun trip to an exercise in monotony and self-loathing.
On a winter camping trip, I have no expectations of fun. Three days outdoors in February in Canada isn't a recipe for pleasure, at least not in the normal sense of the word. This is going to be brutal but I'm also really looking forward to it.
JOURNAL // January 30, 2018
I've known Ben forever. We went through engineering together and both worked as photographers later too, so we jammed a lot on that. A few weeks ago I messaged him to tell him about a new camera I bought. He got back to me a few days later and apologized for taking so long to reply – he was camping... in December!
I've always loved camping but have only done a handful of serious trips and never anything in the winter. I also wouldn't consider myself expert in anything more than the basics of outdoor survival. I usually rely on my tolerance for pain and suffering to get through situations. But that only gets you through so much. It's always bothered me that I actually don't know if I could survive anything more serious if it came down to it. I even looked around for courses I could take but never did. Instead, I watched episodes of Survivorman and Bear Grylls, hoping that'll be enough if something goes wrong. But something tells me experience is an important part here.
So when Ben asked if I wanted to join him on their next trip, I said yeah. It's a chance to learn by doing with the safety net of having people to carry me out if necessary. I'll be completely out of my element but I enjoy that kind of thing, and in the worst case scenario, I'll have a great story.
JOURNAL // February 7, 2018
That's not a packing list
This is a packing list
The trip is coming up in less than three weeks. I have some camping gear but nothing for an overnight camp in the winter without tents. There's no question I'll need to buy some gear so I started looking into it tonight. Ben sent me his list a couple days ago, and I just had a look.
I'm a list-making kind of guy, especially for packing on trips. I like to prepare them months ahead of time, add to them, and then check them off one-by-one until that final satisfying checkmark the night before. But there are list-makers, and there are spreadsheet list makers. Ben is a spreadsheet list-maker and seeing his made me think that I'm seriously unprepared for this trip.
JOURNAL // February 10, 2018
Started creating my packing list and shopping list for the things I need to buy. The goal is to buy as little as possible, and therefore rent or borrow as much as possible.
I was pretty happy that I had most of the gear I needed over the years of hiking, camping, and riding a bicycle all year round. A few more big ticket items I can rent, and there's only a handful that I'll need to buy. And from that list, many of those items like good socks, new gloves are useful all winter.
Pants and socks are the main areas I need to invest in. I have pants and socks for riding my bike, but riding for an hour in the winter is nothing compared to spending a full exposed 72 hours in the woods. Actually, I might be fine with what I have but there were a bunch of pants and socks things on Ben's list that I'd never heard of so I'm going to investigate.
JOURNAL // February 18 2018
I'll pretty much eat anything. My criteria for a good meal is that it's edible, and a great meal is one that's edible and warm. But the first and last time I had a dehydrated dinner, I could barely keep it down. If that's what astronauts are eating, I have a whole new respect for them.
So when I went to MEC to buy my meals for the trip, I was excited to see there was a whole new breed of companies in the space – and they were taking care to make their packaging look good which I was hopeful translated into their food too.
Since we'll be away for two and a half days, my plan is to eat 2x breakfasts and 2x dinners in bagged meals, and for lunch have nuts, chocolates, and other snacks.
I'm actually really looking forward to trying these meals. They're fun to cook (adding water and getting a meal reminds me of those dinosaurs that you put in water and they grew back when we were kids) and I'm interested to see whether the taste is has improved as much as the branding.
JOURNAL // February 23 2018
Something about packing.
JOURNAL // February 24 2018
Day 1 – Hiking in
It was 6 AM on Saturday morning when we left the city, we were finally going. I was excited. Winter camping was something I would never have considered if I didn’t have people to go with. Growing up camping was to have fun – how could 48 hours in the cold woods be fun. On the other hand, surviving for 48 hours with only what you can carry is empowering. And, of course, there were going to be good stories.
We drove up to Algonquin Park and met up with Ben's friend Ed who was already waiting for us in the parking lot. Ed and Ben had winter camped together before. From those camps, they had perfected their gear setups, down to the gram, which they discussed many times on the trip. My winter camping gear setup, on the other hand, wasn't quite as developed. and included a sleeping bag (a rental) almost as big as their entire backpacks.
We set off at 9:30 AM. Our route was the Highland Trail, specifically a longer loop around a series of small lakes – total distance, 35 km. The trail was hilly, typical of places with many lakes, so it was a good workout.
The trail conditions though were bad. The snow had melted and hardened several times over the last few days and was either crusty (where your feet fall through) or packed hard and icy. My boots weren’t great on ice and neither were Ed’s. Ben, on the other hand, brought spikes for his shoes and sauntered up the ice no problem. It was a master stroke of planning. After a couple hours we found a beautiful lookout to have lunch. Only moments after Ben complaining that Ontario didn’t have any nice views. The timing couldn’t have been better.
Halfway through that first day it started to dawn on me that this wasn’t going to be a typical camping trip where you get to camp, setup, make food, and hangout. The distance we needed to cover and our pace meant that we’d be hiking right to sunset just to reach camp. After that, it’d be dark and cold (it’s winter) and that would be the day.
We were also concerned with the forecast, which was calling for freezing rain and worried it would soften the snow and make us even slower, since we had left our snowshoes behind. Our day had felt so long that doing the same distance then next day, with bad snow, and in freezing rain was a painful thought. We considered walking a few hours into the night to shorten our distance the next day but when we arrived at camp, that thought quickly vanished.
Our campsite was incredible. A tree-lined trail separated it from the main trail and provided privacy before opening up to a clearing where there was a spot for a camp fire and logs to sit on. Beyond that, a big rock raised 20 feet above the water with a panoramic view of the lake – it was like sitting on the back of a turtle. And as we arrived, the clouds had cleared and the sun was setting so perfectly centered on the rock, it was as if God had clicked 'center align' the whole scene. It was a little reward for our days work. We put our bags down and enjoyed the sunset before making camp. Then we ate dinner and by 7 PM we were all asleep.
JOURNAL // February 25 2018
Day 2 – The slog out
We new the storm was coming overnight. At 2 AM I woke up to hear the first gentle gusts of wind whistling through the trees. They brought a cool breeze and lightly rocked the hammock putting me back to sleep. That ended a few hours later when I woke to the fly flapping wildly and freezing rain falling. I really didn’t want to get out of the hammock (it wasn’t easy finding a comfortable position!) but I was fully exposed and the thought of waking up wet and starting my day cold was too much. So I got out, reattached the fly, and took the opportunity to pee in the woods (which I really enjoy for some reason).
At 6:30 AM, the freezing rain was falling proper and we were awake in our sleeping bags, chatting about our morning plans, but mostly delaying getting out of their coziness. We knew it’d be raining that morning and had decided the night before we wouldn't cook a warm breakfast. Instead, I happily ate a Clif bar I put in my pocket that night (to keep it warm). You’ll never hear me complaining about having chocolate for breakfast.
It took about 15 minutes to pack up and we were ready to go. Ed had the idea of walking across the frozen lake to save ourselves the hill climbs and some kilometres. Everyone being sore from the previous day quickly agreed. We climbed down the turtle’s back to the lake and started off. Walking on that smooth, flat surface was glorious! It felt like we were cheating but no one complained. We even had the wind at our backs; spirits were high. We talked about how incredible the invention of the the canoe must've been all that time ago. Less effort, less bugs, no backpacks, shorter distance, and more relaxing. Win-win-win-win-win...
We crossed two lakes that day but eventually had to return to the trails. The majority of the day was trails – it was brutal. I tried not to do the math for how many hours of hiking but couldn’t help it. Based on the 15 km remaining and our speed from yesterday, we had at least five hours. Five hours of sore legs, sore backs, slogging and slipping up hills, wetness and cold. I had boiled some questionable water for my thermos the night before which we shared every stop and it tasted better than any tea I’d ever had. We shared snacks and laughed at how much ice was building up on us, but for the most part, we all tuned out and put one foot in front of the other that day. Ben tuned out so well that he completely missed a camper at the side of the trail in a bright yellow and orange tent. And on the home stretch, the only thing that kept us going were thoughts of McDonald's which we unanimously agreed to visit on the way home.
Finally, around 2 PM, after seven hours of hiking (our distance was actually 20km which I’m glad I didn’t know until the end), we arrived at the cars to much excitement. We took one last photo, changed into dryer clothes, and raced off to eat an obscene amount of calories, entirely guilt-free. We had survived.
JOURNAL // February 25 2018
Camping and adventuring are pretty good metaphors for life.
It goes like this:
Excitement and optimism about what lies ahead >>> Confronting the difference between what you imagined and the actual difficulty >>> Struggle to adapt and resetting expectations >>> A seemingly endless slog to finish (or extricate yourself from the situation) >>> An incredible sense of accomplishment and relief at the end >>> Self-delusion about how great the whole experience was >>> Repeating, but with something more difficult
Needless to say, I’m already looking forward to the next trip.