Don’t worry guys, I hear it’s a very peaceful death,” my brother Matt reassures us, as he butters his toast over breakfast in Kelvington, Saskatchewan. Sean argues, “We’re not not going to be using the portable heaters. Besides, I’ve got a detector!” Matt lets out a doubtful smile, “If you want to put your trust in a machine I guess.”
After squaring up for the meal, we gather by the vehicles. “We’ll have few hours of sunlight to find a spot and set up our tent, so they’ll just have to find us,” I announce excitedly, but annoyed that three people in our group slept in and had yet to arrive. “We’ll drive north through Greenwater Provincial Park. There is a parking area that should have a sign saying ‘Steiestol Lake,’ and that’s where we start our hike.”
The mood is optimistic and I’m still surprised by the uptake for our first winter camp. When I had first pitched the idea to my friends over a month ago, reactions varied from “Have fun without me” to “I’ve always wanted to be a corpsicle.” But camping fever hits like a bad cough, and, ready or not, nine of us are in for the haul.
Steiestol Lake had been my suggestion for a target. It’s tucked away in old-growth aspen forest, quiet, isolated and stocked with rainbow trout. Located at the highest point in the park, its name commemorates Odd Jostein Steiestol, who fell in love with the lake while working in the park for 32 years. It also means ‘High Place of Green’ in Norwegian, although today all we see is white.
A half-hour drive leads us to the trail-head. We unload the vehicles. “That’s what you’re packing in? You never learn,” Sean says, pointing toward my gear sled. My modus operandi is always to dangle everything I own off carabiners and bungees. With a grocery bag full of beer hanging off a driveway snow-shovel, this is my finest work yet.
The hike is short, but painful as my gear spills out of my sled at every incline. I concede, “You guys go on without me… This is going to take two trips.” Strangely enough, I still feel better off than Matt, whose rolling luggage looks as if he’s lost on the way to an airport.
After reconvening at the lake, we take to the ice rather sketchily, browsing the shoreline for a clearing big enough for our 10-man tent, that also has shelter from wind, ample firewood, free Wi-Fi, etc. But the forest is far too dense. We finally set up camp on the ice and open a few celebratory beers.
“Wow… Perfect timing,” Mitch drawls sarcastically as the remainder of our group, Kyle, Andrew and Adam, shuffle in to camp—conveniently only after the tent is set up. The work is done, but we’re still happy that everyone has made it out. That’s what friends are for, right?
Friends are also for getting firewood. And, we must build a fire to end all fires. However, this amounts to nothing more than a smoky, soggy mess. I’m also not sure if our propane had gelled from the cold, but dinner required more instances of rogue flame-throwing stoves than I’m comfortable with. After a modest campfire and a bit of moon-gazing, the exhaustion draws us to the tent like zombies.
A splitting headache wakes me up. I’ve had far colder sleeps on trips when I’ve come less prepared, but the night is still restless. Disturbing dreams and odd semi-hallucinations are a common point of discussion among the group. Even with the carbon monoxide alarm, I wonder if we had our brush with the ‘silent killer?’ Or maybe just a few too many celebratory beers.
I step outside and the icy winds strip any residual heat I carried with me from my sleeping bag. The nature of our conditions had been forgotten inside the tent. But a few freshly drilled holes with the hand auger wins my warmth back for a short while. I had my personal reasons for fishing Steiestol: besting my dad’s 9-lb. rainbow caught from the same lake when I was just starting kindergarten. After logging several hours, the record still haunts me.
Meanwhile, the rest of the group takes notice of my motionless figure in the distance, apprehensive to join. I don’t blame them. The wind, the cold, the brightness… everything adds up to make you just downright exhausted. And determination isn’t always enough to catch finicky rainbow trout.
The majority of the day is spent off the lake, in the cozy confines of the forest where we built the camp we should have had the night before. With such little energy, we opt for an all-day smorgasbord including: eight litres of chilli, a cauldron of Ramen, an entire lasagna and a few pounds of steak. Winter camping is nothing if not an excuse to test the limits of one’s appetite in good company.
Sleep comes easy with a full stomach. However, I’m reluctant to look outside the tent on the following morning. For as long as I’ve been pretending to sleep, the sound of ice pellets plinking against the tent entices me to lay on the ground forever. The hike back is going to be brutal, but at least I’m not alone.
For all of winter’s discomforts, there are positives to counter them. However, the room for error is minimal. Things get frozen. Gear breaks down. It seems like there’s a litany of things to go wrong if you’re unprepared. But staring down the barrel of uncertainty is always easier when you have friends to rely on—even if they show up late. And if they aren’t good for a joke or two, they usually happen to have packed ‘that thing’ you forgot.
Photography by Andy Goodson, Mitch Doll and Sean Hootz