The woman in the wild spaces

The woman in the wild spaces. I've got my backpack that Luke bought for me and the blue tube is the hose for my water pack, which sits in a special pouch inside my backpack. It's really handy, except that the hose freezes up sometimes.

The woman in the wild spaces. I’m wearing my Osprey backpack that Luke bought for me and the blue tube is the hose for my water pack, which sits in a special pouch inside my backpack. It’s really handy, except when the hose freezes up.

Luke and I went on a snowshoe backpacking trip this weekend, my first time overnight backpacking on snowshoes.

We left Sat noon because I had a reflexology appointment in the morning and drove out to the Bighorn Recreation Trail just a few kilometers south of Hinton.

The trailhead was a bit hard to find. There was a bike park that fooled us but we didn’t stay there long and found the trailhead a few minutes later. It’s quite small, room for maybe two or three parked vehicles, although maybe it’s larger when there is no snow.

There was a ton of garbage strewn about in the parking lot, plus what looked like a deer carcass or two–Nikita, our yellow lab, was overjoyed.

So we hefted our packs and went on our way. The trail was an easy straight for about the first kilometre. Not too many views after crossing the first cutline a few hundred metres in. Just lots of trees. The snow was pretty packed down for the first two thirds of the trail.

I was having a tough time because the trail turned uphill and I’m new to snowshoes and out of practice at backpacking so am unaccustomed to the extra weight and necessary dexterity. After a couple of kms of this, I got frustrated and took off my snowshoes. Ten minutes later, apparently the most adventurous of the previous hikers had turned around because the trail turned into a deer trail (or possibly a bighorn sheep trail) and the snow got deep. But I didn’t want to bother with my snowshoes.

I was getting tired and bitchy and it was about 5:45, 15 min to sunset, so Luke started looking for a desirable camp spot. Oh, did I mention we didn’t bring a tent? We wanted to try the night open-air. We had a tarp for the ground, a mattress pad each, and our -20C bags.

We went off-trail and set up camp. As usual, I started the fire while Luke took care of dinner. It’s his stove and I don’t know how to use it that well, plus I love keeping my fire-starting skills fresh.

I used my typical method, which works nine out of ten times on the first try. This was one of those times it didn’t work on the first try. Usually I can get a fire started within five minutes of gathering all my wood.

I use the fire bundle technique, which is where you find the smallest driest twigs you can (the underbranches of evergreens like spruce work really well) and break them up to about palm length and bundle them together as tight as you can. Then you gradually add larger sticks to the outside of your bundle so you have kind of an upside-down cone of the driest tinder you can find, with the highest density of small dry twigs at the point of the cone held in your hand.

This way, you can hold your fire source into the middle of the cone and let the flame lick up into the centre–yes, towards your hand. As long as you turn the bundle, you won’t burn yourself.

So I made my bundle too large, which was the first problem, because i couldn’t turn it comfortably. And I was using a lighter, which was also less desirable. I’ve practiced since I was just a little girl using the good quality wood matches, which you can just stick in the middle and move as necessary. I find the lighter clumsier. I couldn’t move my bundle fast enough, which means I couldn’t control the direction of the flame, which means that the flame died out, leaving some red coals but no fire. Anyways, a few lighter clicks later I got the bundle lit and then carefully set it in the spot Luke had designated as the living room (he’d dug two large spaces out of the snow, bedroom and living room). I then piled twigs on the little flame, slowly feeding larger sticks until it could support an actual log or two. Then I considered the fire made. By that time, the water was boiled for our freeze-dried backpacker’s meals so we added water and waited for 15 min by the fire. The stars were starting to come out and it was only about -5C, so things were pretty relaxed.

I’d made the mistake of forgetting my down jacket but I had a wool sweater which was fine while I was moving. Turns out it wasn’t good enough for an evening of sitting by the fire, though.

We ate our dinner–Luke had ‘Kung Pao with Chicken’ and I had ‘Chicken Cashew Curry’–which was warm, at least. Freeze-dried meals are not fresh cooking, though.

By that time, Nikita had curled up by the fire and had her sweater and fleece on. She has her own little dog backpack which can fit her warm stuff and her food, usually. Luke carries her little piece of mattress pad.

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Anyways, after an evening of enjoying the fire and maybe a sip or two of my own mixture of chocolate liquer and creme de menthe, it was bed time.

I was nervous. I haven’t slept out under the stars in winter much–maybe once before and it didn’t go very well–but I was excited to get into my warm bag and sleep well in the fresh, crisp air. Unfortunately I let my lower back get a bad chill and it turned out to be a pretty big problem. I got into my bag and waited for about ten minutes for that normal sleeping bag warmth to settle into me. It didn’t come. All I felt was this terrible draft of cold coming from the ground up into me no matter which way I turned. I started to panic a little because–though it shames me to admit–I panic when I get cold and can’t warm up.

Things went downhill from there. I got irritable and panicky and started snapping at Luke, who was trying to help me despite my unproductive mental state. He figures I was in the early stages of hypothermia, but I think that sounds overly dramatic. I think i was just cold and bitchy.

Long, long story short, we eventually got it sorted so that I was warm and I managed to get a few hours of sleep, which I was very pleased about. Nikita wormed her way in between us, so I think she was fine, although I woke up to her shivering once or twice. We bring a good blanket to go over her, plus her wool sweater and her fleece, plus her mattress pad, but after all, she is a dog and it’s hard to explain to her that she has to stay on her mattress pad and keep her blanket on if she wants to be warm. She is a dog, after all, and gets up to run around in the middle of the night.

Luke and I smoothed over ruffled feelings Sunday morning in front of the fire with hot food in our belly. We both agreed that rather than let the events of the previous night deter us from sleeping out under the stars again, we’d just learn from it and do it better next time. There are so many reasons why I love him, and that is one of them.

We packed up camp and decided to try hiking on a bit farther before turning around. We still wanted to see some of the promised views the write-ups talked about. We snowshoed back out to the main trail and left our packs there, then headed onwards, only to lose the trail in about 15 minutes. There were markers on trees, but they were sadly the same colour as the inside of a broken branch, and these abound in a forest. So we lost the trail and searched around for a while, then simply snowshoed up a hill in hopes there’d be a view of the Rockies.

We got to the top of the hill, which was a scramble in some spots, especially with snowshoes on, but all that we could see was trees. We hadn’t crested the treeline yet, so the only views we could glimpse were in between treetops and required a lot of filling in the blanks.

Luke left the decision to me whether we should continue on or return to to the car. I was torn; I really want to get fit and get exercise and I wanted to see the view, but I was exhausted from the adventures of the night before and from my lack of current fitness, so I chose to return to the car, despite being disappointed in myself.

We headed back and got to our packs in a fraction of the time we’d spent going up the hill, then headed on.

After a bit, Luke asked if I’d mind if he went on ahead. He was feeling the need to get more exercise and I didn’t want to hold him back. He said he head back to the car, drop his stuff and come back to carry my bag for me. So he and Nikita took off and I brought up the rear.

I actually quite enjoyed snowshoeing on my own. My bag wasn’t that heavy, only about 25 lbs, and the sun was shining and when I hike alone I don’t struggle with the weight of other people’s expectations. It’s a battle I’ve fought all my life, thinking other people want me to go faster, be better, and whether or not they really think these things, I push myself hard to measure up. Every once in a while it’s nice to get a chance to just walk at my pace and breathe in the scents of the spruce and fir and listen to the wind and enjoy the shafts of sunlight that filter through the trees now and then. I also hug trees. It’s true! You won’t understand until you do it yourself, not a quick hug, but a long, lingering hug like you’d give to your best friend or your parent after months of not seeing them. Trees are good for that.

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Aspen in aspens (me in a grove of aspen poplar, which receive hugs very well).

Anyway, I made it back and Luke and Nikita met me not too far from the trailhead and we packed up and headed into Hinton for a bite to eat, which was a story in itself. If you want to hear about our lovely restaurant experience, please read the next post!

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3 Responses to The woman in the wild spaces

  1. annekostalas says:

    You are very brave – the older I get the more I hate sleeping anywhere other than my own bed! I would be frightened I would wake up dead, to quote a Band song.

  2. Aspen Gainer says:

    Anne,
    thanks for reading!
    I don’t know about ‘brave.’ I like pushing my limits and I also like having little things to be proud of. This was one of those experiences for me that was tough in the moment, but I feel like I’m better for having done it. And I want to do it again and get better! Like many Canadian winter outdoor activities, what doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger!

  3. Sounds like you guys had an all right time.

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