Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Winter Ex

Tomorrow morning, I'm leaving for Algonquin Park for my annual winter camping trip. This being my eleventh time, people have stopped asking me why and just skip to the "You're crazy" part. But I feel somehow compelled to say a little about why and how I first got started in winter camping.

They were crazy days, let's start by saying that. In the winter of 1999/2000, I was working at the Whitby Mental Health Centre on the 1:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. shift, I was going to school in Mississauga to complete my Bachelor of Science in Psychology, I spent alternating weekends wondering why I had ever joined up with the Canadian Armed Forces, Reserves, Infantry, and...I'm a writer.

That about sums it up the "why" it got started, don't you think?

All joking aside, I still don't know why. All I can say is, "Don't knock it 'til you try it." But every year, I'm reminded of my first experience in winter camping.

There was one winter exercise I went to on a fine, frosty weekend in January. We, the 48th Highlanders of Canada, were outfitted with Michelin Tire Man undergarments, pine green overcoats expertly disguised as tents with sleeves, a kind of dog sled (I was one of two "dogs," most of the weekend), and toques to wear under our helmets.

Our first mission: set up a conical tent and go to sleep. Easier said than done, on both counts. Now, granted, I was really tired - after all, I'd been already up for about 36 hours, and already the dehydration had kicked in...But from what I recall, the operation begins with six or seven armed and angry young men doing the highland fling in knee deep snow. One sad sack is then tasked with the ignoble mission of delicately balancing upright a forty-pound, 12-ft high pole, blind-folded by his or her own oversized toque and helmet, while the highland flingers curse and man-handle frozen and inflexible canvass into a roughly circular shape around said sad sack.

Did I mention it was two in the morning?

Did I mention it was -28?

Rule number 1: don't stick out your tongue when holding up a 12-ft high forty-pound steel pole.

Rule number 2: never laugh or point when the sergeant major roars and does a face plant into the freshly packed snow.

Now, add yours truly, the third shortest member of the company, Geek-Girl, the untrained soldier with the strangely square gap in her front teeth, where earlier that year she'd chipped her teeth on the barrel of her rifle. (Long story, don't ask.)

After playing the role of sad sack in the middle and trying really hard not to laugh at the boys stumbling around the Maypole, I inquired aloud, "So uh, where's the floor?" To which, the still-annoyed sergeant major replied, "What @#$@# floor?" Whereupon, as any rational person might, I asked, "You mean you want me to sleep on the snow?" The ever-increasingly irritated sergeant major's response is not fit for print.

Strictly speaking, we weren't sleeping on the snow. We were in our sleeping bags, on air mattress, on the snow. ("Eat a lot of beans in the morning, Flu! That way at night, you can heat up your sleeping bag!")

To keep the whole tent warm, we set up a Coleman lantern, then jammed in four broad shouldered men and little old me, plus all our kit. On shifts, each of the five of us sat up in our sleeping bags, staring at the stove to ensure that it didn't go out. Me, I'd been up for 36 hours, and now I was lying on my back with my arms clamped by my sides, with the sergeant major breathing in my one ear and a master corporal snoring in the other, watching a private sit on the snow, sleeping with his eyes open and drool freezing on the corner of his mouth.

I didn't sleep. I fantasized about hot chocolate, mouth wash and ear plugs. When I got bored of that, I sat up and glared at the stove, daring it to go out.

This was quickly becoming the longest weekend of my life.

Day two: pull pin and move deeper into no man's land, using nothing but people power.

And I'm sorry, despite those awesome recruitment ads on TV, it's hard to look sexy and tough when you're wearing bibbed snowpants, a toque and a helmet that keeps falling forward, while shuffling through knee-deep, harnessed to a dog sled.

So, the day went on, and I discovered first-hand the intoxicating effects of winter dehydration. That happens when you accidentally let the water freeze in your canteen and you spend an hour or two snow shoeing in the harness of a dog sled. They pulled me out of the exercise for a while and plied me with chicken soup and admonishing looks.

Funny thing about dehydration. It makes forget about the bathroom.

Funny thing about getting rehydrated. It makes you have to go to the bathroom.

Night fall. Same tent, same snores, different snow. After being up for more than 48 hours, I discovered that yes, you really can sleep through simulated artillery fire. Two hours later, I was tapped. It was my turn to keep the Coleman lantern lit - an incredibly devilish feat to perform in Arctic temperatures, when the dang tank keeps losing pressure and running out of fuel.

Ever try to light a lighter with artificial paws?

I came back into the tent after refuelling, repressurizing and relighting. (Ever try to back into a tent on your knees while carrying a lit Coleman stove?) I took off my boots and my coat, and I glanced over my shoulder at the emergency candle we had burning throughout both nights. It was a sturdy little candle, fixed to the centre pole by a clamp. The wax had been steadily dripping down on the sleeping bag of the man stuck in the middle of our sardine act. None of us minded. We couldn't even keep the Coleman stove lit - nothing could catch fire in this cold.

At the end of my watch, I tapped the next guy to watch the stove, while I stretched out for another few hours of staring at the roof. (Did I mention there's a great big gaping hole at the top of the tent? For ventilation, they said. Heck of a lot of good it did! Ever get trapped in a tent with four unwashed men, a dozen eggs and a whole mess of baked beans?)

I watched the little candle burn down until the wax was in-line with the clamp. The guy on watch was also fascinated by our little light. Somewhere in the wee hours, the tiny candle slipped free of its holster and fell, still burning, perfectly upright on the crotch of the man who slept under it. I shared a most appalled glance at the other witness. And still, that little candle burned! We didn't know if we should gasp or laugh. But we had to do something. After a quick game of paper-rock-scissors-middle finger (I won!) the other guy reached over to pluck the candle from its make-shift sconce - just as the affronted soldier snorted awake and shouted a few choice profanities known only to the 48th Highlanders.

Day three. In the morning, I overheard a couple of the guys bragging about their names. One was proud of the fact that he'd managed to spell out all seven letters. Another was glad that his was only three letters long.

P-A-T, I thought, shouldn't be that difficult to write in the snow.

Then I discovered how they'd written their names.

My aim's not that good.

So, I took my folding shovel and my trusty roll of t-p and headed off to the woods. No problem, I thought. If they can take care of business out of doors, then so can I.

See, the trouble with winter is...most vegetation is deciduous. I kept on walking deeper and deeper into the forest, and no matter how far I went, you could still see me! All the scrawny saplings seemed to line up, corridor-like, without a leaf between them. At some point in my desperation, I stopped caring about being watched.

Dropping drawers in -35 weather, surrounded by a hundred strapping young men, is undoubtedly the most counterintuitive thing I have ever had to do. For another thing, when you're wearing a tent-sized parka, a rebellious forward-falling helmet, floppy boots, bibbed snowpants, two pairs of combat pants, general-issue leiderhosen and one's frilliest underpinnings, the call of nature quickly becomes a logistical nightmare. And when the wind swoops up from underneath you, it becomes a physical impossibility!

Thus begins the torment.

Breakfast was next, and we were exhorted not to follow the example of young Flewwelling by becoming dehydrated, and therefore, every internal tank was topped up with two litres of bad coffee and a litre of plastic-flavoured water. This rule also applied to yours truly, who had not gone to the bathroom since mid-morning the day before.

Fortunately - and unfortunately - it was Sunday morning, and all us weekend warriors were looking forward to the long bus-ride home. Great, I thought. We'll trek back to something like a road, where we'll find a johnny-on-the-spot. Barring the appearance of that great green relief machine, there was always the bus. After all, we'd all been chauffeured from Toronto to this frozen purgatory by Greyhound, with upholstered seats, heating, and a VCR! I was already relishing the thought of the back-of-the-bus potty. Thus relieved, I could finally sleep!

Imagine my horror when I discovered that, not only were no porta-potties, but our coach back to civilization had turned yellow and ugly. For the next three hours, I was relegated to the back of a school bus that predated suspension.

Someone smiled and offered me an empty bottle. My response, while creative even by military standards, is still not fit for print. It was twenty-six hours since the last time I had gone to the bathroom.

And let me tell you, I have never moved so fast, so painfully or so awkwardly as in the exact moment the big yellow schoolbus arrived at Moss Park Armouries. I left a streak of shed clothing from one end of the armoury to the other, and, after breaking my belt in my enthusiasm, I swear, I peed for an hour and a half.

I went for my first solo winter camping trip a couple of weeks later. But that's another story.

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