About an hour after we leave the car, my jaw unclenches and my shoulders drop. I feel the tension start to burn away, like early morning mist. It’s been a long month and a half stuck in lockdown, unable to leave the house. But now we can camp again. It doesn’t matter that the forecast is bitterly cold, or that no one has packed down the trails. We’re finally outside, where we belong.
In the autumn, facing another long winter without travel and mountains, Shake ‘n Bake and I bought winter sleeping bags. We decided we wouldn’t stop camping. We’d commit to going at least once a month, no matter what the weather threw at us. We learned how to melt snow, and start fires when everything was covered in ice after freezing rain. We figured out how to stamp down a sleeping area in the snow, and build benches to sit around the fire. We didn’t travel huge distances. But just learning how to survive outside in the winter seemed like enough.
Winter camping is quieter than our summer adventures. It feels like hibernation. We spend a lot of time in camp, keeping the fire going. We read books, listen to podcasts, and do crosswords. We have time for hobbies- an unimaginable indulgence on a thru-hike. We sleep for twelve hours, cocooned in clouds of down, the outside world muffled and still. It’s peaceful, a welcome respite from a world that has become too stressful.
No one has been out for days. We follow an abandoned logging road, breaking trail through knee deep powder. We cross a frozen lake to a narrow spit of land. The wind picks up. Snow squalls race across the sky. We choose a sheltered spot in the trees. I set up the tent and inflate our sleeping pads: a time consuming chore. Shake ‘n Bake gathers firewood and digs out a fire pit, piling the snow up to make a bench. Our first two nights are warmer, -10c instead of -20, but we still bank up the fire, drinking soup and hot chocolate to ward off the chill. Overnight, my feet are cold, despite my -30c sleeping bag and nalgene hot water bottle. I bend and flex my toes to warm them, trying not to nudge Shake ‘n Bake next to me.
We head out, crossing back over the lake to the road. After a kilometre, the road dead ends. We bushwhack cross country, following the lake we camped on the night before. We decide we’ll use the lake as a handrail, keeping it on our right. I put my gps away and concentrate on stepping in Shake ‘n Bake’s snowshoe footprints.
A mess of blowdowns and alders block our progress. We detour to the left, trying to avoid the worst of it. We can see a gap in the trees where the lake must be. Again, the alders force us left. A tangle of branches under the snow grabs my snowshoes, almost tripping me. Left again. And then, footprints. We’re upset, disappointed. We thought we were alone out here. Who else is crazy enough to snowshoe on an unbroken trail? We try to figure out which way they are going, so we can avoid them. Then it sinks in. These are our footprints. We’ve done a complete circle. I check the GPS to confirm. Our gap in the trees wasn’t the lake. Instead, it was a stream, choked with brush. We laugh about it- we didn’t have an objective for the day anyway, so our navigation mistake hasn’t put us behind schedule. We find a spot, well away from the alders, and set up camp.
In the morning, we follow the GPS, back towards an overgrown road that links back to our starting point. It’s slow going. The snow drifts to my hips in places, and we average less than half a kilometer an hour. We find a perfect campspot, tucked out of the wind and with plenty of firewood. The night is cold and clear, and I wake up huddled at the bottom of my sleeping bag. You’re supposed to try to avoid breathing inside your bag, since it creates condensation. When I’m asleep though, I just want to hide my head somewhere warm. I wake at six, and leave the warm nest of the tent to pee. The thermometer on my bag reads -22c.
The next day, it isn’t long before we find our trail from the way in. Broken trail is significantly faster, and we’re soon back at the car. It’s been 72 hours since we’ve seen a single person. We head back to the big city, hopeful that we’ll avoid more lockdowns, and that we can return to the woods soon.