Sleep in a tent during an extreme cold weather alert? Why not?!
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I started seriously considering winter camping last fall, and it wasn’t long before my friend Cheryl and I had picked a date and started planning our trip. We agreed that we wouldn’t go if a snowstorm was in the forecast, but hadn’t discussed the temperature at which proceeding with our trip as planned bordered on the ridiculous. Despite Friday’s forecasted high of -17 degrees Celsius (feeling like -29 with the windchill), we headed north, for Mew Lake at Algonquin Provincial Park. List-makers and super-planners that we are, we were still surprised by some of the weekend’s happenings…
Friday – Day 1
After picking up Cheryl at around 7 AM, loading her stuff into the van, and stopping for hot drinks at Tim’s in Waterdown, it was clear sailing until just before Barrie, when the “check engine”, “TRAC OFF” and “VSC” lights went on in my van. This necessitated a short detour to the Barrie Toyota, where we were greeted by a very enthusiastic service person with a clipboard who encouraged us to have coffee, hot chocolate, cookies, and a visit to the bathroom while we waited. This was no ordinary bathroom. In fact, in my opinion, far too much money was spent decorating it! And the TV seems a bit extreme. In any case, she wished us well in our camping adventures and said to us, “Don’t die!” One hour and $90 later, a false alarm was declared and we were on our way! Cheryl thought I was looking quite fashionable in my spandex running pants and hiking boots, but I had nothing on the woman in the waiting room with the huge fur hat. We were thinking it might come in handy in Algonquin…
After stopping at the Huntsville Tim’s parking lot to eat our packed lunches, we filled up the gas tank at the junction of Highways 60 and 35, and arrived at the West Gate of Algonquin (km 0) around 12:45 PM to get a camping permit. We learned that there were “a few people” camping there already. After another few minutes of driving, we arrived at the Mew Lake campground (km 30), the only one open for winter camping. We had a bit of trouble finding our way to the actual campsites, ending up at the wood lot instead, so we grabbed a bag of wood ($6.50) and a bag of kindling ($4.50) from the small wood shed, dropping our money in a little metal honour-system payment box. We drove past 4 yurts (heated permanent tent structures with bunk beds) that all seemed occupied (one even had a “hot tent” set up beside it – a tent with a stove in it with an exhaust pipe), and when we reached sites 83-94, right on Mew Lake, we checked them all out before choosing the one right across from the vault (no flush) toilets (site #90). There were a couple of other tents set up in these sites – we weren’t the only crazy ones! The comfort station (which we soon learned was the warmest place in the campground) was about 650 m away, was heated, had flush toilets, warm running water, a shower (which we did not use), and a laundry room with washers, dryers and a laundry tub. Right next to it was a skating rink with hockey nets, sticks and pucks and a campfire nearby. We didn’t see anyone use the rink, but they did flood it regularly and it seemed to be in good shape. Not too far from the comfort station, a quinzee had been built in one of the sites – I never did remember to crawl inside it!
Within about an hour of our arrival, we were greeted by a pine marten in the snow bank between the men’s and women’s toilets. It didn’t stay long but was quite cute. We set up Cheryl’s winter tent, and put our sleeping pads, sleeping bags, pillows, and blankets in as well.
Did I mention it was cold? Putting up a tent while wearing big mittens is not easy. My hands were too cold to just wear fleece gloves, but I had to keep removing my mittens and expose my flesh to snap things together. It was also challenging putting the tent pegs in, but we managed. For at least one Cheryl attached a rope to the fly and pegged it down away from the tent where we could actually get the peg into the ground. We opted not to set up a tarp (to cover a cooking area), but we did bury a 10 L water bottle in a snowbank, because Cheryl had read that the snow would insulate the water and keep it liquid. We put another bottle in the van, and one in the laundry room. Any thoughts on what happened?
Our feet got pretty cold on Friday when we weren’t moving around. Over the weekend I changed my socks frequently (when they felt damp) and occasionally used foot warmers. I once tried to wear 2 pairs of socks, but no kidding it took about 5 minutes per boot to get my foot in them (and by that time, I was sweating buckets on top!).
We decided to go for a hike, so we headed from our campsite toward the Old Railway Multi-use Trail, which is a 16 km trail from Cache Lake to Rock Lake. We hadn’t been walking long when I spotted a Gray Jay in the trees, so I pulled out some bird seed and we attempted to feed the birds from our hands. They weren’t biting, but once we threw the seed down onto the ground, two birds were all over it. We walked along the old Mew Lake airfield, enjoying a delicious trail mix as we went (I ended up just pouring it into my mouth so that I didn’t get my fleece gloves wet – and me cold – when I stuck the food into my mouth!), and when we reached the Old Railway trail we headed East. We retraced our steps and headed back to our campsite, walking about 5 k in all.
Cheryl used her axe to chop some of the wood into smaller pieces (even the kindling), and we decided that we’d need more kindling so I drove off to get another couple of bags. We built our campfire and discovered that not only was there snow on the wood, but some of it was frozen together and other pieces had thick ice chunks on it. Not exactly ideal for building a fire! We eventually got a good fire going, and managed to heat up the frozen minestrone soup that I had made at home, and toasted our homemade cornbread too. We also boiled water to put in Nalgene bottles to have in our sleeping bags overnight. It was so cold out though that we ate our dinner in the van (which was marginally warmer – we didn’t turn the engine on)!
It was dark by this time, and with a clear sky, the stars were beautiful. The moon was very cool too, just a tiny sliver but the entire moon was still visible.
We gathered our dirty dishes, our washing tub, dish soap and cloth, and made the 650 m trek to the laundry room to fill our tub with warm water. You’re not supposed to do dishes in the sink, and in summer I would never do my dishes there (food could clog the drain), but we did our dishes in our tub and dumped the “grey” water in the toilet next door. Those few minutes in the laundry room allowed us to warm up! We headed back to our site, grabbed all our clothes (mine in my big red bag and Cheryl’s in her barbie tub!) and headed back to the comfort station! We decided we’d rather change there – in the warmth – than in the tent! We knew that we needed to remove all our clothes and change completely to avoid going to bed in anything that might be damp and therefore cold!
To keep our cameras, GPS’s, and batteries warm (and my contact lenses safe in their cases), we put them in bags and slept with them in our sleeping bags! Ever cuddle a camera before? As well, I put the liners of my boots in a cloth bag in my sleeping bag, so that they wouldn’t get frosty! When we got into the tent and finally into our sleeping bags with all our stuff (including our hot water bottles!), I was warm at first. I was wearing 1 pair of socks, 2 long john bottoms, 1 fleece pajama bottom, 2 rain pant bottoms (accidental – I meant to take them off!), 1 long john top, 1 merino wool top, 1 fleece pajama top, 2 fleece sweaters, and 1 winter hat and 1 pair of fleece gloves! I had one blanket under my Thermarest, and 4 on top of me. My sleeping bag is rated to -20 degrees Celsius, and I had an extra fleece liner in it that I made. Despite all this (it’s a wonder I fit in the bag), it wasn’t long before I was feeling cold. From the waist down I was warm, but my upper body was cold. Not so cold that I was shivering, but I wasn’t comfortable, and I was having trouble falling asleep. With Cheryl telling me not to fall asleep if I was cold, and our Toyota friend telling us not to die, it’s no wonder I lay there forever, trying to fall asleep! In fact, I honestly felt like I did not sleep at all Friday night, but in the morning Cheryl said that she had heard a really loud noise in the night (maybe ice cracking?) and asked me if I heard it – I didn’t respond, so I must have been asleep!
Saturday – Day 2
In the early morning we could hear snow falling gently on the tent. I lay in my sleeping bag listening to birds singing. When my bladder was full to bursting, I convinced myself to get up. My boots were frosty in the tent, but not the liners I had slept with! There were a few cm’s of freshly fallen snow, making the trees very pretty. According to the van, the temperature was a balmy -13 degrees Celsius! We walked to the comfort station to change, where the day’s weather forecast was posted as a high of -8 – things were looking up!
It was amazing how fast our 2 L Nalgene bottles full of gatorade started to freeze. By the time breakfast was done, I was drinking slushy liquid.
We tried to use Cheryl’s MSR Dragonfly stove, but it wouldn’t work. The white gas was still liquid (not frozen!) but for some reason we couldn’t get it into the pump, and therefore we couldn’t cook with it. We had brought mine as well, but had the same problem. We’ll be doing some research on using them in winter! So, we ate the dehydrated bananas that we didn’t eat the night before, and we built a fire to cook our awesome oatmeal with nuts and dehydrated fruit. It was 10:30 AM before we ate! We also had tea, and while standing and drinking mine, something flew at my head and landed on it – I yelled “ah!” or something like that and proceeded to shake tea all over my coat! I realized when it flew away that it was just a Chicadee, either thinking I was a tree or looking for me to feed it!
We checked the water jug in the van and it was frozen, but the water in the snow bank was still liquid!
We walked to the comfort station to do our dishes (saw that our water jug was still there), and then got ourselves organized to go snowshoeing (Cheryl has her own but I was borrowing my mom’s). We headed for the trail head, which was next to the big garbage bins on the way to the comfort station. There we found a woman with a camera, a very big lens, and a tripod. She was taking pictures of something in the trees. Turns out it was a pine marten, which she said often went into the garbage bin to get food (and sometimes nap!).
It was adorable. And very hard to photograph, because it jumped from branch to branch and moved so quickly! We chatted with Erika for a while and watched the pine marten, hoping it would come out of the tree and onto the snow to get a better shot. It did eventually, but my pictures didn’t improve!
We headed along the same trail as Friday, but turned onto the Track and Tower trail on our way to the Highland Trail. We encountered some Chicadees who were happy to eat sunflower seeds from our hands. The Highland Trail was meandering and beautiful. I had a déja vu moment and realized that the part of the trail we were walking was the same part I walked with my dad in the fading October light a few years ago when we camped at Mew Lake at Thanksgiving with my parents – Alasdair had gone for a long run and overestimated how far he could go in the daylight remaining – when it got late and dark we went searching for him and were very relieved to find him (as he was to see us)! Cheryl and I are hoping to do a backcountry hiking trip on this trail in the fall. We passed one tent along the trail, with 2 sleds that would have been used to pull gear. No one was there. Later we encountered 2 men snowshoeing in the other direction and learned it was their site (you can backcountry camp anywhere in Algonquin in the winter except on summer camping sites – backcountry camping is a different rate/night than car camping at Mew Lake), and they showed us pictures of a lookout further up the trail, but we didn’t have enough time to make it there this time. We had our mud tortilla wraps for lunch, and then turned around to head back. When we reached a steep hill we had climbed earlier, I decided it would be fun to slide down it on my bum rather than potentially slip on the snowshoes. It was great fun! Later we met the 2 guys at their campsite and asked them to take our picture.
The weather was quite pleasant for our snowshoeing trek – it was probably -8, with lightly falling snow at times. All told we walked about 7 k.
When we got back to our campsite we drove 10 minutes to the Visitor Centre (km 45), which Cheryl had never been to. We had a hot chocolate and briefly looked through the gift shop and museum, but we were pretty tired from our sleepless night! We headed back to Mew Lake, bought more kindling, and headed back to our campsite. Sadly, I discovered that I must have left my green fleece hat behind at the Visitor Centre! I had 2 other hats with me though, so it wasn’t a disaster (just disappointing!). Before making our fire for dinner, we talked for a while to Jane, our neighbour, a woman (50s?) who was camping on her own for a week. She had taken some survival courses and had all kinds of tips for us.
Dinner was chili and cornbread, with Baileys, Reeces Pieces and banana chips for dessert. We could actually sit and enjoy our fire for a while, because it wasn’t freezing cold out! We heated water for our Nalgene bottles and put them in our coats until bed – very nice body warmers! We buried the water jug that had been in the laundry room.
We walked to the comfort station to do dishes, and I watched 2 pine martens chase each other in the trees for a while. Different people were there with huge lenses and flashes taking tons of pictures. We returned to the comfort station to change, where I realized that I had lost a sock – one of two that I had stuffed in my coat. We walked back to our campsite with a headlamp on (we had been walking in the dark until this point) and found it – back at the tent door! Saturday night we both slept much better – I was warm!
Sunday – Day 3
At 6:30 AM I got out of the tent for a quick trip to the toilet – I had the clever idea the night before to put my hiking boots (not winter boots) at the tent door, so I didn’t have to get my boot liners out of my sleeping bag to get up to pee in the night! I went back to sleep and we got up around 8:30. Our half filled water bottle (the one from the laundry room) was quite slushy when I dug it out – maybe we didn’t bury it enough? Cheryl tried her stove again but it still didn’t work. So, we built a fire with the wood Cheryl had prepared the night before. Our fire was slow – painfully slow – in getting going. We ate banana chips and leftover Reeces Pieces, and drank our gatorade while we waited! I even got an ice cream headache from one particularly cold gulp. Eventually the water boiled and we were able to rehydrate our fruit and add some water to our granola/milk powder mix. It was scrumptious, though we had a record late breakfast at 10:45 AM! This time, I was prepared for birds landing on my head while I drank my tea! As we were finishing our breakfast a couple walked by and we talked to them for a bit – they had intended to backcountry camp with a friend, but he bailed and they wimped out, so they car camped instead.
We decided not to do our dishes and to just wash them at home. We packed up camp, and Cheryl noted that my front left tire looked like it was bulging from low pressure. We agreed that we’d fill it up at the first opportunity. We talked to Jane again, who told us that the plank salmon she’d cooked for dinner the night before didn’t quite go as planned – the plank caught fire!
We left Mew Lake and headed for the Mizzy Lake trail (km 15), which we intended to snowshoe before driving back home. There was only 1 car in the parking lot. We knew we didn’t have time to walk the entire 11 k loop, so we planned to walk for a while and then turn around. The trail was another beautiful one.
We followed boot prints for a while, but eventually met the couple after they turned around and then we were walking in newly fallen snow. We didn’t see or hear a single live creature in the woods (though we did see various animal tracks) until we were on our way back – maybe even mostly back – when I heard and saw… a bird. We started looking for a log to sit on to have our lunch, and almost immediately discovered a bench along a boardwalk on Mizzy Lake. We had to clear the snow off of it, and lower ourselves down to it to sit because of the amount of snow on the ground, but it gave us a great view – of trees and snow falling – no animals!
After a quick stop at the Huntsville Tim’s, we were on our way home. And then, as we were driving south on Highway 11, we heard the womp womp womp of a flat tire!! Yes, we forgot to fill the tire. I steered the car into the merge lane, but couldn’t get off the road because of big snow banks. Twice I tried to move the van further to reach a driveway but didn’t want to damage the van any more. After calling Toyota roadside assistance, and deciding that it made more sense to be towed to the nearest Toyota dealership within 300 km, rather than have the spare tire put on (that can only be driven a short distance at low speeds, and wouldn’t get us home), we waited for the tow truck driver to arrive. We were closer to live traffic than we would have liked! Within an hour Chris from Gravenhurst Towing showed up, and Cheryl and I agreed that tow truck drivers don’t get paid enough!
He had to park his truck partly in the live traffic, and was walking in harm’s way. He came to check whether the U hook on the front of our van was factory installed and therefore okay to tow the van up the flatbed truck with. I told him that we had it welded on to hold our canoe (40 lbs, not the weight of a van!) so he decided to attach elsewhere! He towed us about 20-30 minutes to Sunrise Toyota in Orillia, which of course was closed on a Sunday. Chris was great though, waiting to make sure we had a taxi coming before he left us, and making sure we knew to check the key slot to see that our key envelope was actually deposited correctly. I told him I’d be writing a trip report on my blog, so what would he like to say? He said he didn’t know, that he didn’t really know what a blog was. 🙂 In any case, THANK YOU Chris and Gravenhurst Towing!! We got a taxi to the Highwayman Inn, bringing our clothes, cameras and other valuables with us – including our extra food we had packed, some of which we ate for dinner (told you we are planners!).
Monday – Day 4
I called Toyota at 7:30 AM, as soon as the service department opened. I pleaded our case – that we had been winter camping in a tent and were stranded at a hotel. I was told that as soon as “his bodies” were in, they would look to see what the van needed. Leonard from Toyota called during breakfast to tell me that yes, I needed a new tire! Unfortunately, they didn’t have any, and their tire delivery guy wouldn’t do his rounds until 1 or 3 or even later. He said he’d call if they found a tire from a neighbouring business. While waiting for Toyota to call, I wrote my trip report! I started doubting whether we’d get home that day, given that I still hadn’t heard anything after 11 AM. But around 11:30, Leonard called to say that he had driven to Barrie Toyota to pick up a tire (THANK YOU LEONARD!) and that the van was almost done. PHEW! The Toyota shuttle came to get us, and we were on our way home at 12:15 PM. We rolled into Waterdown just after 2 PM.
This weekend I learned 5 ways to warm up in frigid temperatures: 1. wear 2 thick pairs of socks and attempt to squeeze feet into boots, 2. snowshoe up a steep hill, 3. attempt to squish a snowy tent into its factory issued bag, 4. drive long enough for the van engine to warm up, and 5. go to the comfort station!
Despite the rocky start and ending to our weekend, we had a fantastic time and will definitely go winter camping again – and eventually, in the backcountry too. We need to master operating our stoves in the winter, first!