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Frost and Cold, Bless Ye The Lord 1

– another adventure, camping in the forest

September 2020

Temperature outside my little tent must be very cold: the walls of the tent are dripping with moisture, in the way glasses and windows fog up when one side is warm, and the other is cold!  I get out my smartphone, which I’ve been keeping warm under the sleeping bags, then open the weather application (yes, even here, deep in the forest of a National Park, there is a cellular signal!).  Sure enough, it says -3°C. 2  It’s definitely cold outside.

Here, in my Arctic-style sleeping bag, layered over and under with extra blankets, I am warm, and comfortable.  But, I have to get up.  There is a bodily requirement that simply must not happen inside a tent!

Open the sleeping bag (whoof!  it’s cold!).  Lean out of the bedding and undo the zippered tent door.  Squirm sideways, wiggle, and shift.  Slip my feet into my boots (worry about getting dressed later).  Flop over onto hands and knees, and crawl backwards through the tent door until all of me is outside.  Now, with nothing to hold onto, stand up!!  Oooooff!!

Proceed into the underbrush to do what I have to do.  Nothing unusual here: moose, deer, coyotes, squirrels and bears do it in the woods all the time.  I just feel sorry for campers with female anatomy.  They have to expose bottoms and much of their legs to the frigid air, in order to accomplish what is comparatively simple for a male.

Go back to the tent, bend down and reach inside, and pull out the pile of daytime clothes.  Get dressed in my screened dining shelter.  Put on several layers of clothing to keep me warm – though the exertion also warms me up pretty well.

And exertion there is.  I have strung a clothesline between some trees, and it’s time to put my sleeping gear on the line, to air it out.

Kneel down, reach inside the tent, pull out a pillow, or a blanket or a sleeping bag – one at a time, each requiring a separate kneeling, reaching, and then standing motion – and carry it over to put it on the clothesline.  Then pull out the air mattress, to re-inflate it (it loses pressure overnight – mostly because of the cold, but also because there may be a leak, though I have never found one).

Putting all of that back, later in the day, involves even more exercise – not only with the constant requirement to return to a standing position after doing something inside the tent, but working on hands and knees in there, to lay out, and straighten, and tuck in the bedding.

Camping!  Some people hate it, but I love it – even in this unusual, and unexpectedly intense cold.

And I am in awe, thinking of aboriginal people, before European contact – people who lived outdoors constantly, often in deep snow and in much colder weather than this!  I cook my meals on a propane stove, making meals from food that I bought in a store...  and the continent’s first peoples?  Catch, kill, skin, cook and eat, all of it virtually with your bare hands – or hands wearing leather mitts made with immense labour from what you killed last year.

In this year of Pandemic, Heather and I have not been able to travel across the country to our remote cabin in the Province of Quebec.  There have been too many – and frequently confusing – quarantine regulations connected to travelling across two provincial boundaries, and staying in hotels along the way, then somehow needing the help of friends while in our cabin, to get groceries and supplies, during possibly enforced isolation.

So, it was decided that I would get in a week of camping by myself.  Heather has been working too hard to join me.  There has been no sign of her promised 2020 retirement, and besides, she hates camping (her idea of “roughing it”  is a hotel without room service).  In late summer, I checked my calendar to see what weeks I had without appointments, then went online, accessed weather forecasts, and phoned Riding Mountain National Park to see what was open and what was closed at this time of year.  Everything lined up perfectly for September 14-19, and so it was decided.

To my great surprise, it turns out that it’s been four years since my last camping trip, and a lot of rummaging around was required, in order to find and assemble all my gear.  Although I love being outdoors, and far from civilization; and although I sleep in a tiny backpackers’ tent, I have an air mattress, the Arctic sleeping bag, multiple blankets, a good lantern, and a large screened dining shelter, with camp stove, portable barbecue, dishes and utensils, and a folding chair.  So, all of this had to be found and made ready for the trip.  As well, I couldn’t leave Heather without a car, so I arranged to rent one (which proved to be very inexpensive, using “loyalty”  points from shopping purchases).  And, I bought a wildlife deterrent air horn (bear spray is now considered a “weapon,”  which one has to register!).

My favourite campsite is off the beaten track, but it is, nonetheless, a purpose-built campground – albeit unserviced – in a Canadian National Park.  Riding Mountain National Park is 2,969 square kilometres of forest and lakes, situated a 267-kilometre drive northwest of Winnipeg.  From the campground to the town of Dauphin, where I can buy more supplies, or even eat at a McDonald’s, is a mere 32 kilometres.

In effect, it is remote camping with some conveniences.

It was noon, Monday, September 14, that I picked up my rental car, loaded it, and left Winnipeg.  Heather was really sweet, as we said goodbye – showing, without quite saying so – that she was worried I might not survive the adventure, either because of my age (I’m 79), or because of bears or other wildlife.  Knowing that there is cellular service in the park, I promised to report to her daily.  Then I drove away.

About forty minutes into the drive, I passed a Department of Highways truck, its amber warning lights flashing as it went along.  It proved to be set up as a snow plow.  Really!??  In September!?  What did they know that I didn’t know?  What was I getting into?

Riding Mountain is a National Park, so there’s an entry gate, where one must purchase a permit.  The attendant, upon learning that I planned five nights of camping, said, “Do you have a heater?”  “Ma’am,”  I replied, “in a small ground tent, heaters are kind of risky.”  “Oh.  I’m camping in a small RV, and I was soo cold at night, that I had to go into town to buy a heater for it.”  It intrigued me that some camp staff don’t live in heated cabins, but I reassured her that I am a fairly experienced camper, and should be okay.  Then, with permit in hand, I drove off into the park.

It’s about 35 kilometres from the South Gate to my favourite spot, and as I drove along in the park, drawing nearer and nearer to my destination, tears of pure happiness began to run down my cheek.  To me, this place is heaven on earth.

And, when I got there, the campsite that I like best was available!  Soon I was laying out my stuff, and hammering in tent pegs.  It took a while, and I began to realize that I may have overestimated my fitness and resilience.  Once the tent and the dining shelter were up, I was completely exhausted.  It was dinner time, but I could not bring myself to haul the food and cooking supplies out of the car, to prepare a meal, so I drove down to the town of Dauphin and ate dinner at the McDonald’s.  Oh dear.

True, I felt I should go into town anyway, to buy one of those sheets of reflective plastic, called an “emergency blanket,”  for added protection against the cold.  The gate attendant’s suggestion of a tent heater might not be practical, but this inexpensive product could turn out to be a very good idea.  And it was.  I ended up using it, along with my Arctic sleeping bag and multiple blankets, throughout the week.

Cold that saps your energy
That first night, the outside temperature went down to 8°C.  Pretty cool, but my sleeping set-up worked well.  So well, in fact, that I actually felt hot around 3:30 AM, under those warm coverings.  I slept a total of ten hours.

The next night was colder, with the temperature dropping to just above freezing (1°C).  And it rained – but my camping set-up worked well, and all my stuff was dry and useful in the morning.  The third night was the coldest, with a recorded overnight temperature of -3°.  I tried to give you a sense of the feel of it in the opening paragraphs of this blog entry.  The fourth night?  Temperature down to freezing, but not below.  And the fifth and last night?  1°C.
Tony, dressed for cold, in front of his camping setup
A cold, but happy camper

Daytime highs hovered around 14°C (57°F), which can’t be classed as “cold,”  but was well below room temperature.  On the Thursday morning, after that third and coldest night, I dressed in several layers, covering my upper torso with a t-shirt, a shirt, a sweater, and a windbreaker, as well as putting a winter toque on my head.  I was enjoying the whole experience – despite the cold, and even, perversely, because of the cold – so I took a selfie (right), with me standing in front of my forest set-up, insulated mug of coffee in my hand.  Then, in typical city-dweller fashion, I texted the picture to some friends, and even posted it on my FaceBook page!

On the last full day of camping, temperatures reached a high of 18.9 C.  – almost room temperature.  This is what I wrote in my diary:

1:10 PM
The past two hours have been the best moments of this entire camping trip!  It is warm-ish, and the sun is shining.  I have sat in my folding chair, idly, and happily, listening to the wind in the trees and hearing birds calling to one another.  This is camping heaven.

It’s true that I overestimated my ability to withstand several days of prolonged cold.  However, I also think it turned out to be colder than the weather forecast intimated.  I have been constantly weak, and unsteady, and although much of that can be attributed to my age, I suspect that the cold itself sapped my energy to a very great degree.

With today’s sunshine, and warmth, I still just want to sit and enjoy nature.  When all of one’s energy has been drained away by cold, it doesn’t just bounce back when the sun returns!  Anyway, that’s my opinion, for now.

And it remains my opinion.  Prolonged cold saps a person’s strength, whether you are twenty-nine years old, or, like me, seventy-nine.

Hiking didn’t happen
One of the things that I looked forward to doing on this trip was hiking.  There is a delightful nine-kilometre trail around Moon Lake that I have taken every time I’ve gone on one of these camping trips. 3  But this year, there were official signs around the campground saying that the trail was closed.  Why?  Because of black bears.  Apparently, this year – so said the notices – an unusually large amount of berries had grown in the forest, and the bears were plentiful.

So one of the ways to keep warm – hiking – was not available to me.

I did see a bear, though!  But I was not on foot.  I was in the car when this big fellow approached the edge of the road ahead.  Seeing my car coming, he stopped, evidently waiting for me to pass by.  I slowed, but could not risk stopping to take a picture.  Continuing down the road, I saw him in my rear-view mirror, calmly making his way across.

A mid-20th Century Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, replying to critics who regarded answered prayer as no more than coincidence, is reported to have said, “When I pray, coincidences happen; when I don’t, they don’t.”  There is no way to “prove,”  in the empirical, or scientific meaning of “prove,”  that some surprising events of human life can be attributed to the direct hand of God, but I definitely believe it.  And I have to say that there were several little signs of God’s Providential intervention in this camping trip of mine.

I try to put all details of my daily life into God’s hands, and for that week in the woods, I was frequently thanking my Maker for the beauty of nature, and for surprising things that seemed to happen out of the blue.

For example, there was no rain forecast for the week.  I have a large plastic sheet that can be spread over both the dining shelter and the tent, in the event of rain.  With it in place, I can go from tent to dining shelter and back without a drop falling on me.  Normally it sits on top of the dining shelter (you can see it there, in the ‘A cold but happy camper,’ photo, above), but, on Tuesday afternoon, I decided, for no discernible reason, to spread it over the two tents.  Did I think that, by blocking some cool breezes, it might help me stay warm?  Possibly.  Did I want to make sure that no part of it would mildew?  That, too.

But it was set up, overnight, when, unexpectedly a drenching shower came through.  All my gear was protected, and dry.  Coincidence?  Hand of God?  You may decide, but I offered a “thank-you”  to my Maker.

Then, there was the matter of drinking water.  The campground has a couple of water stations where one can fill up large portable water tanks.  I’ve never hesitated to use such water for coffee or drinking.  But, as I was getting ready to leave home, Heather said to me, “You know that five-litre jug of drinking water that we bought and never opened?  You should take that, just in case.”

So, I did.  And, at the campground, I carried my water tank, as usual, to the water station, planning to use camp water for dishes and cleaning, if nothing else.  There I saw a notice: “Boil Water Advisory.  Water should be brought to a two-minute rolling boil prior to use – whether for cleaning or for drinking.”  I don’t know all the reasons why the advisory was posted this year, but one element – I’m pretty certain – was that the nearby lake has an enormous algae bloom.  The lake itself was visibly green.

What prompted Heather to tell me to take the drinking water?  Coincidence?  Or the hand of God?  I offered a “Thank-you” to God.

The Boil Water Advisory meant that I had to run my camp stove more often that I would normally do.  A big pot of dishwater, in cold weather, will take quite a bit of time and fuel, in order to come to, and remain for two minutes at, a “rolling boil”!

I had set up my camp stove, and attached the cylinder of propane gas to it.  Judging by its weight, that cylinder had plenty of gas when I arrived at the campground.  But on the second morning, I set the dishwater to boil while getting out my breakfast supplies.  When the water was ready, I took it off the stove, and after making coffee (with the drinking water), I began my bacon and egg breakfast.  Just then, the propane pressure began to drop.  If it ran out before breakfast was cooked, I’d have to drive 32 kilometres into Dauphin, to get more propane.  The half-cooked breakfast would have to be discarded.  But, the flame held, and the breakfast cooked perfectly.  Just as I took it off the stove, the propane flame flickered, and went out!
View from the north slope of Riding Mountain
View from the north slope of Riding Mountain

Such timing!  Was it coincidence?  Or Providence.  I ate my breakfast and washed up my dishes, singing praises to God.

But I had to drive in to Dauphin to get another canister of propane for the stove.  In due course, I set out.  I enjoy the drive.  There is a spectacular view, where the road comes out near the top of the northern face of Riding Mountain.  As the road starts to descend, one can see the endless flat prairie spread out below (see photo).  I love that view.

Into the store I went.  Mid-September is past the bulk of camping season, and, even though Dauphin is the primary supply town for campers at the northern part of the National Park, the section of camping supplies in the store was almost empty.  There were only three canisters of propane left.

Should I just take one?  All three?

I took two.

And, with all the cold weather and the boiling of water, by Friday morning, with a day yet to go in my camping trip, one of those two canisters had emptied itself completely, such that I had to start the second one.

How did I know it would take two?  Co-incidence?  Providence?  My thanks to God was continuous.

In so many ways I was blessed and protected during this trip, and I am certain that I have been deliberately and specifically cared for by my loving Lord.

On the coldest part of the trip, I did wonder if it would be my last time camping.  It was difficult, and draining, without a doubt.  But, with care, and good preparation, I think I will manage it a few more times before I die.

The following delightfully silly – but faithful – saying, seems a fitting conclusion to this narrative:

“God takes care of fools and babies”

...even when one of those “fools”  is an elderly camper. 

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1  The title of this article is taken from a poem, found in the ancient Greek version of the Bible’s Book of Daniel, and attributed to the three men who were put into a fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:19-30).  It has been used in Anglican worship since the 16th Century, most commonly under the Latin name, “Benedicite Omnia Opera,”  or, in modern prayer books, it’s called “Song of the Three Young Men.”  I quoted the same work in the title of my 2016 camping trip.
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2  That’s 26.6°F, for you Farenheit people!
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3  See the picture taken on that walk, back in 2012.
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