By Dominique Liboiron
In last week’s column, I wrote about “Lost Land of the Caribou”, a book by Ed Theriau that describes his experience trapping in northern Saskatchewan. His description of camping in the snow without a tent inspired me to try it for myself.
Let me tell you about that experience. Using the advice Theriau shares in his memoir, my goal was to see if I could sleep outside without a tent, just like him.
I park my vehicle. I leave the keys in the ignition and don’t bother to lock the door. No one lives on this ranch in the winter. From here, layers of hard-packed snow cover the road. I walk.
I hear a woodpecker in his tree. He’s far away, but the hammering of his robust beak travels with ease through the cold air. I’m among acres of snow to enjoy winter camping. Tonight, I will sleep under the stars.
Followed by thousands of my footsteps, I arrive in front of the large empty house. She sits on the edge of the area’s most dominant feature, a long sharp-sided coulee whose depth and trees protect it from Arctic winds and where springs flow year-round. It’s the ranch’s centre of life.
My shelter will be simple, very simple. I didn’t pack a tent, only a rucksack carrying essentials. I’ll rely on nature to provide the frame of my bivouac, which I’ve decided to set up on the other side of the coulee.
I descend into the heart of this territory and in the bottom I cut the tracks of a moose as conscious as I am to the dangers presented by a bubbling spring that has melted a large tract of ice covering a pond – the same pond I need to cross to reach the other side of the coulee. We detour.
Once out of the coulee, I set foot on a snow-covered plateau of grass dotted with poplar bluffs. In the middle of a bluff, I find what I’m looking for; shelter from the wind and wood to build my bivouac and to burn for warmth.
First, the fire; it’s lengthways so to warm me from head to toe as I lay in my bed. Next, the shelter; a platform of tree trunks protects me from the frozen ground. A layer of spruce branches protects me from the gnarled tree trunks and becomes a somewhat comfortable mattress where I spread a heavy woollen blanket. Above the platform, I tie an emergency blanket at a 45-degree angle opening toward the fire. The blanket is made of thin aluminium, which cuts the wind and reflects heat back to me. My shelter is parallel to the flames.
How warm is it in my bivouac? I’m writing this barehanded.
The weather is changing. I sit still and listen for birds I know by name, but the silence is as heavy as concrete. The sun is setting, but its descent isn’t accompanied by the song of coyotes as it should be. The animals sense the change. They’re hiding. Wind begins to carry goose-feather snowflakes and brings a solid band of low clouds. I hoped to rely on the moon and stars and the surprising amount of light they shine into darkness.
I settle into camp. Sleep comes for a certain time before I’m cold. I light the fire again, and again I sleep a certain time before I light the fire again. Despite the interrupted slumber, I’m content to merely be outside. Waking before dawn, I can hear the woodpecker in his tree and he guides me back to my vehicle.
Winter camping is worth trying at least once. You may discover what you’ve been missing out on. After all, enjoying the cold weather is better than complaining about it. Winter is what you make of it.