The proverb goes “it’s not the fall off of a tall building that’s so bad, it’s the landing that’ll get you.” In a similar vein, it’s not the sleeping in a snow cave that’s cold, it’s getting out of bed in the morning.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about going on a sleigh ride with some foreign exchange students. I mentioned something along the lines of the fact that they might possibly qualify as being more Canadian than I am, because they’d slept outside overnight, in a hole in the snow. Shortly after that, Dan from the Bulkley Valley Search And Rescue crew came in and kindly offered me a shovel and promised he’d tell me where to shove it.
It seems that the BVSAR was planning an excursion for members to take part in a winter survival exercise, part of the many exercises that members need to complete as part of their training. A handful of members would be doing their first solo overnight trip, building a shelter and a fire, and presumably not needing the professional services of their colleagues in the process. Dan invited me to join the crew, and promised to show me what I needed to know to survive a night rolled up in a sleeping bag in the snow.
And that’s how, two weekends ago, I found myself slogging down a path at Dennis Lake in borrowed snowshoes, trying to keep up with a 6’2” German and a 6’3” Dutch teenager, carrying far too much gear on my back (and maybe a bit too much Plan B on my front) and wishing I’d actually picked up those collapsible ski poles I’ve been meaning to buy for a few months.
When we arrived at the end of the trail, a fire was already roaring, so introductions were made, and then I set out to dig myself a suitable trench that could be overlaid with dead branches and a tarp, then partially covered in snow. Of course, the problem encountered with any outdoor activity in winter is that when you start to exercise, you start to sweat; and when you stop, your sweat helps you freeze your butt off. The added enjoyment of outdoor sleeping is that you then get to sleep in your sweat, in the hole that you just dug that caused all that sweat to begin with. I’m not sure my brain is fully equipped to handle this level of irony and causality.
By the time I was ready to unroll my sleeping bag and two Thermarests (Yes, two. I brought my better half’s as well as my own — what, you think I wanted to risk any part of me coming into direct contact with the snow?), Dan had built his snow cave, moved in, supervised my construction, and dug a pretty big fire pit down to the ground through about a metre of snow. Just because I’m willing doesn’t mean I have to be instantly able, does it?
From there, we joined a few others by the fire to cook supper, then traded tales of the wilds into the night — okay, it was mostly listening to tales on my part – before reaching the inevitable point where I would be required to actually get into a sleeping bag, and fall asleep in my cave.
To my surprise, it was actually quite easy to get to sleep. In fact, I woke up a bit late, and incredibly refreshed. And I only used one pocket hand warmer in my sleeping bag, at my feet.
The entire process was almost entirely painless, relatively uneventful, definitely anticlimactic and — despite the fact this opinion may label me as a bit unbalanced — quite enjoyable. In fact, I will probably try this again some time. And with a little luck, BVSAR won’t have to be involved, either as host or rescuer.
So take that, European high school girls; now I’m almost as
Canadian as you are.
Jon Muldoon is The Interior News’ sports reporter and pens the bi-monthly Wilderness Man column.