Thursday, 8 March 2018

Winter respite in PANP

On December 15, 2017, two friends and I loaded up into a truck and drove north from Regina to Prince Albert National Park (Paignton Beach). For me, this was a first. Although I had snowshoed and cross country skied and taken my bike out in the winter and in snow, I had never actually attempted to camp, let alone sleep in a tent in a Saskatchewan winter. (I'm not going to quibble about winter solstice and when winter actually starts. There was snow, it was cold ergo, it was winter).

In any case. Don was the resident expert, having lived in the north and being a professional (and apparently semi-retired) educator who also teaches students the joy of the outdoors, hiking, skiing, and camping in it. It was his idea, he was the catalyst, the sensei. Paul was the cheerleader. An avid and experienced outdoorsman, Paul is no stranger to camping, winter sports and all the joys of the outdoors in winter, spring, summer and fall.

We took a number of weeks planning this event. Paul and I spent quite some time scratching our heads wondering what to take, how to prepare and what to expect. We were able to borrow some tents and sleeping gear, as what we both had were not winter rated. As it turned out, the tents that we did get were not four season tents, but we were prepared to use them anyway.

Just like prepping for an Ironman

I told myself, this was no different than preparing for a race. "Get your stuff organized", "make sure you will have what you need for any situation", "then, go back into your kit and eliminate half the stuff that you will need, but know you'll never use." That's what I did. I packed the essentials:

  • Sleeping bag x 2
  • Foam bed mat (need something better next time) 
  • Tent
  • Headlamp x3 (really? did I really think I needed that?), 
  • Micro cooking stove and butane canister
  • Cooking pots/utensils
  • Coffee (instant Starbucks coffee is the best I've ever found) 
  • Water containers  with water (there would be no running water)
  • "other liquid" container for late night peeing. I like to use an old bike bidon, then I just pitch
  • Several tarps/groundsheets
  • clothing layers for three days, including light and heavy winter jackets, leggings/tights and snowpants. (we had no idea what the weather would be. It could be anything from Zero to -40C.)
  • Two pairs of winter boots and suitable socks and gloves and hats/tubes/buffs 
  • Snow shoes and poles.
  • Bathing suit (I guy can dream? and it doesn't take up any room)
  • Several battery packs for charging my iphone/camera, Garmin Fenix 3, and headlamp. (I assumed there would be no power - and there wasn't)
  • Sundry stuff, like pocket knife, tent light, mini axe (didn't need) etc. 
  • personal food/snacks and stuff that we would share, such as home made foil pack potatoes, sausage and onions)
Some of the equipment we had was shared between the three of us and was borrowed or was already in the possession of Paul or Sensei Don. The list that I have above is what I had taken personally. After three decades of purging all that I owned, I didn't have much gear that wasn't specifically made for triathlon, running or biking. But I improvised, especially with the clothing. The actual camping-specific equipment I have was collected through a quarterly gearbox program I participate in. It is called the Explore Live The Adventure Club. (LTA). It is pretty awesome, and it is Canadian, a rarity in this country...Canada.

Skip ahead to the first day

The 5-hour (450ish) kilometre drive from Regina to Waskesiu (PANP) was uneventful and Paul is an expert chauffeur. We lucked out on the weather, as it stayed quite warm (0 to -6C). Sensei Don had mentioned that there would be friends up there. And I was delighted to meet some new friends who shared a passion for the outdoors, but who also had significant experiences with camping and the outdoors.

Our first order of business was setting up tents. I was quite impressed with my setup.  but I made mistakes. I did not flatten down the snow enough underneath the tent/groundsheet. After the first night of sleep (temps dropped to below -15C overnight), the loose snow melted and froze underneath where my body lay in the tent. The result was a very hard (and cold) set of lumps directly beneath where I was hoping to sleep. The picture below is the hard, icy outline of my body underneath where my tent had been.
The simple foam bed roll, did not help.

I also found, on the first night, that although I had the tarp/groundsheet underneath the tent, when I put my hand, or any bare body part (don't ask) on the ground, I would get immediate condensation on the tent floor. I am a hot blooded...triathlete, after all.

I had a compact tarp that I had scored from the LTA. Putting that down inside the tent, below my sleeping gear helped tremendously. In this picture, you can see the silver of the mini tarp that I used. The tent itself was cozy. I was worried about condensation, so I left some of the netting open to the outside and this allowed some breezes. I slept comfortably, and was "just on the edge of cold and never needed the second sleeping bag.

I now understand, however, that had I closed those flies, the tent would have been considerably warmer with me in it and I wouldn't have had to be on the "edge" of anything.

In any case, this trip was a learning experience and I learned many things. More than I expected. I will share those musings once I can put them to words. 

I made a video after the tent set up. It features Paul and Sensei Don.

You will have seen in the video the other tents and a building in the background. That was the cookhouse. 

This is a building at the national park, that can be used for warming up, cooking and even taking shelter/sleeping in when the weather got bad. During the warm months, it has no walls, in the winter, it is walled up and quite cozy. Some of our new friends slept in there and we all cooked and ate (and drank!) there and in front of the fire.

As the weather was considerably warmer than we expected, the fire was a great place to cool down, but also to get to know each other and to sample some of the delicacies that we had brought up such as the Bushwakker Mead and deer sausage that made the rounds.

The whole weekend was about sharing. And not only was there too much food cooked, but some of the food that was brought up wasn't even taken out of cooler/storage.


It is tempting to say that we had some visitors at our camp, but it is more realistic to say that we visited their home. There were the resident deer and elk that we caught some glimpses of, but by far, the more entertaining was the fox. I'm not versed enough in zoology do know if Mr. Fox was a Ms Fox, but this resident of the park showed up and would get surprisingly close to the camp and wouldn't leave. I suspect that there had been some "fox feeding" in the recent past and this canine had figured out how to get a free meal without having to rely on the usual supply of rodents and other small mammals.

This second picture is of the viewfinder of one of the people I had the pleasure of meeting, Sarang. A new Canadian, I learned that Sarang one day wanted to camp, so he drove up to PANP, and made some new friends - those that were also at the camp during the week I was there.
Like the others I met and spent time with, Sarang is a remarkable man.

I also had the privilege of meeting this odd fellow. I was quite surprised to see this dude resting on the snow, while I set up my tent. For decades, I've lived under the misapprehension that insects, like bears, do not come out in the winter. Thankfully, we did not see or hear any bears.

This little guy, I later learned is a Snowfly, a wingless fly that walks around in the winter.
And you thought Australian insects are whack!

But, by far, the most ubiquitous and interesting residents who visited us squatting in their territory were a pair of Whisky Jacks or Gray Jays. 

These fearless birds are now Canada's official birds - well, not these two particular ones, although I'm sure that they have served as ambassadors or envoys or something. The story of their official status is here on a CBC news page.

What was amazing was, I only needed to hold out my hand (with food in it) and these little guys would swoop down park themselves, eat up the food and fly away, only to come back at the next offering. The other really interesting thing about these birds that I discovered is that they are one of the only Canadian birds (indigenous to Canada) that have an indigenous (Cree) name. 
According to Wikipaedia, "The species is associated with mythological figures of several First Nations cultures, including Wisakedjak, a benevolent figure whose name was anglicized to Whiskyjack."

Perfect Sunrise

When you are away from the big city, or any city, one of the wonders is the light show. This trip did not disappoint. We walked out on the frozen Waskesiu Lake in the morning and, with a little patience, were treated to this!

Sure, there are beautiful skies in Regina and in other places, too. But this was the reward for waking up and taking a little walk.

The air was cold, but very clean. I think it was Sarang who said: "Stop, stop! Smell that!" To which I said: "I smell nothing," and he said: "Exactly!"  Everything was clean, pristine and pure.  Then they started cooking bacon in the cookhouse.

Snowshoe Ecstasy

The weather, as I had noted, was surprisingly warm. We also had quite a bit of snow fall during our several days there. This made for perfect conditions to be outside, not that we had much choice, and to snowshoe (not that we had much choice as the snow was very deep in places.)

This was my favourite part of the trip. After losing considerable weight the previous six months and being in quite good cardivascular and muscular fitness after a season of 6,000 kms of bike riding, I was really looking forward to a good rigorous snowshoe. I was not disappointed.

There were some great trails that Sensei Don knew all about and we all took our turns leading and "trailblazing" on them. There were some ski tracks along the way, and we did our best to avoid them, but as they were fresh, and the snow kept falling, we were not too worried about trodding upon them.

And although I had with me my cook stove, and all the fixins' for making coffee and food, we instead delighted in some sandwiches that Sensei Don had picked up from Italian Star Deli, that were especially welcomed.

I did get a Garmin file of some of the snowshoeing. You can see it here. 
We also had some liquid items that really actually lower one's temperature and should not be imbibed outdoors in winter, but also taste really good and give a awesome warm feeling when consumed.

Sarang took this selfie/group picture as the Sensei was trying to figure out how to use the camera on his phone. I did mention he was semi-retired?

Breathtaking Hike

The snowshoe adventure was hard. Sometimes I pushed the pace, other times, the climbing and the effort that took surprised me. It was good to stop often and take pictures. I don't think there was a single kilometre where there were not at least four or five things to observe and wonder at. 

For me, it is always the trees. They have a beauty and a mystery that reminds me of a past I can't remember, but that I know is in my DNA, somewhere.

They speak to me, they point me in directions I didn't even know existed.

And they compel me to look at them and through them to see what I didn't even know was there.

This trip was the inspiration for my beginning to once again understand that the road ahead isn't paved. It was the beginning of my searching for understanding in nature. Understanding of what? If I knew that, I wouldn't have to search as far.

What I do know, is that with every foray into the outdoors, every time I push myself, almost and into the point of discomfort, I discover something new about myself. I learned this when I did Ironman for the first time and subsequent times.  I learned this when I almost drowned at the St. George Ironman. I learned this when the old gods of travel conspired against my family and me at Christmas time. 

But I also learned this indoors when I became a Knight of Sufferlandria.  There is some intangible that I come closer to perceiving and understanding when I venture into the unknown and unexperienced.

I am thankful to all my friends and new acquaintances that helped make this foray into the wilderness possible. Sartre wrote "Enfer, c'est les autres -- Hell is other people". Every single day I understand and sometimes live this struggle of being that the existentialist described.

But also, when a group of strangers comes together, usually in the middle of nowhere, I suddenly realized on this trip,  that salvation and understanding is other people, too.

This paradox is the duality of my understanding and my experiences that I must explore.

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