The Background Story
Two Christmases ago, my dad gave us gifts he thought we would hate because he’s a jokester like that.
My youngest sister got a spider magnet, because she hates spiders.
My other sister got a rubber snake, because my Dad thought she hated snakes (she tells me now she doesn’t hate them, but I’m not so sure).
My brother-in-law got a mini Stanley Cup with the Toronto Maple Leafs logo on it, because he hates the Leafs (along with every other self-respecting hockey fan).
My girlfriend got The Expendables on DVD, because she hates mindless action movies.
And for me, my dad made me a brochure. In it I was promised a 30 day all-expense paid vacation inside the igloo of my choice, because I hate winter.
I hate winter because it’s dark, cold, and depressing. But I don’t just hate winter; winter scares me. Freezing cold conditions bring the risk of frostbite, hypothermia, and male shrinkage.
And so, when I started thinking of ideas for my Year of Fear, I thought my hatred fear of winter was a great place to start.
This past weekend my girlfriend and I jumped in our Toyota Echo with our backpacks stuffed with sleeping bags, food, and warm clothes. I had planned on doing my challenge alone but my girlfriend offered to come along. She’s an outdoorsy type, but I knew the real reason she was coming was to make sure I didn’t kill myself.
We drove 130 kilometres north of Montreal to Ouareau Park. We parked our car and snowshoed 45 minutes into the bush. We found a spot to build our snow shelter (aka quinzhee) at 11am. I had watched a few videos on how to build a quinzhee on YouTube, so I figured I knew what I was doing.
While allowing the pile of snow to set and harden, we went snowshoeing and explored the forest. When we returned to our unofficial campsite, we collected dead wood and birch bark and built a fire. We boiled water for tea and ate nuts, chocolate, and pea soup. It was a great afternoon.
Before it got dark, we dug out our mound of snow and prepared our shelter for sleeping.
We laid a blue tarp on the ground inside, along with our inflatable sleeping pads and sleeping bags.
At 8pm the fire was dying down, the forest was dark, and the temperature was dropping below -20˚C (-4˚F). Winter had been mild up to this point, so of course it had to be one of the coldest nights thus far.
Inside our quinzhee, we took off our boots, jackets, and snow pants with difficulty since there wasn’t enough room to sit up. We used the outerwear as our door but I left a large gap to make sure we didn’t asphyxiate ourselves in our sleep. In hindsight, the opening was way too big.
As I closed my eyes cocooned inside my sleeping bag I thought, “This isn’t so bad. Today was a lot of fun and I’m feeling pretty warm. This challenge is a piece of cake!”
An hour later the fun was gone.
I woke up shivering. I was lying between my girlfriend and the door and I could feel the frigid air through my sleeping bag. I turned over to warm up, fell back asleep, and woke up 30 minutes later with the other side of my body now frozen. I turned again.
It continued like this all night.
Each time I woke up I thought about ways to fill in the doorway to limit the amount of cold air coming in, but I couldn’t bring myself to unzip my sleeping bag and get out. I wanted to hold in what little body heat I thought I had left.
At 3am I started to contemplate packing up and getting the hell out of the bush. This was painful, and a bit scary. I didn’t want to lose any fingers and toes! Still, getting up in the middle of the night and trudging 45 minutes out of the bush in the dark seemed like an even worse option. So I gritted my teeth and stop whining about it in my head.
Finally morning came, but we weren’t ‘out of the woods’ yet.
We willed up the courage to unzip our sleeping bags and make a move to leave. Our snow pants, jackets, and boots were frozen stiff. We forced the ice-cold clothing onto our bodies with all the energy we had left. The boots were the hardest to pry on; I almost kicked a hole in the side of the quinzhee during my struggle.
Our hands had no feeling left in them which made packing our bags difficult. Finally we threw on our gear and snowshoed 45 minutes out of the bush on numb toes. When we got back to the parking lot we gave each other a quick high-five, started the car, and drove home.
What I Learned
Since my Year of Fear is an experiment, I guess I should reflect on what I’ve learned from my challenge of surviving in the cold Canadian wilderness for a night.
I think I’ve learned three things:
- I still hate being cold, but I don’t hate winter. Winter can be fun. My girlfriend and I had a great day of snowshoeing, exploring, and sitting by the fire. But having a restless, uncomfortable night inside a hollowed out ice cube is not fun.
- I will probably never win an Adventurer of the Year award if being a ‘real’ adventurer means hiking across the frozen tundra of Antarctica or scaling Mount Everest. I love adventures, don’t get me wrong, I just prefer to be warm while having them.
- The cold is a real fear. Unlike the fear of losing your job or speaking in front of a crowd, the cold can actually kill you. I think my fear of winter has reduced because I did have fun doing winter activities I don’t usually do. On the other hand, my fear (and respect) of the power of freezing cold temperatures is much greater.
I’m happy this challenge is over. My dad was right—Oogluk Resort was the right gag gift for me. I can say with confidence that I won’t be choosing to sleep in a quinzhee anytime soon.
When we got home after our challenge I had a deeper appreciation for the little things: adjusting a thermostat when I’m cold; the feeling of my warm, comfortable bed; walking around the house with only my underwear on. I often forget how lucky I am to have the conveniences I do, and I’m happy this challenge reminded me of that.
One down, 11 to go.
P.S. Next month will be much different. I won’t be putting myself into a situation that could be potentially deadly, but I’m WAY more afraid. Join the Year of Fear community below for a sneak peek at my next challenge…