It felt ancient to fall asleep so close to a blazing fire. It was three in the morning and I’d been staring into the flames and slow-reading a memoir by one of my favorite professors for hours. I knew there was a long day ahead and in total I eventually got about two hours of sleep.
But I was hearth keeper. That was my job.
The nighttime temperature was -27°F outside of our small oasis of warmth. The nearby forest was silent, the silence broken only by the crackling flames and the soft measured breathing of Mark nearby.
It was the second night of our three-day trek in the Yukon, nearby our pulks (sleds used to transport equipment that we dragged behind us during the trek) were freezing over. In the morning when we rolled up our sleeping bags, they too had a thin layer of ice covering them, despite our body heat and the blaze.
Camp on night two was a lean-to and though it’s the first we’d ever built, it did the trick and we were warm enough to feel comfortable despite the frigid night. Our firewood was stockpiled high, we chopped and dragged full dead trees to camp and watched the twisted roots blacken in the blaze. My mittens and fingernails were filled with bits of wood and dirt and I sat tired but overwhelmed with a feeling of gratitude and a sense of accomplishment.
In the old days, when asked to partake in some winter activity, my joking dismissal usually began or ended with…
“Way too cold!”
Yet, as Director of Toughness for Columbia Sportswear, I found myself trekking in the Yukon wilderness after being dropped off by a tiny bush plane the previous morning. As the plane flew out over mountain passes and snow covered forests I said to myself,…
“Wow, we’re flying into some real backcountry.”
No roads, no signs of other folks below, just frozen rivers and snow covered mountains. What am I doing here?
Well, 48 hours earlier, after a day of training on how to build a fire and construct a quinzee, also know as a snow shelter, we gathered our essentials and hopped aboard a tiny plane that landed on a frozen lake. The pilot stayed just long enough for us to jump out with our belongings. Moments later, he was a dot in the sky as we strapped on our snowshoes and began our hike.
With the luck of “warmer” weather (20°F), we trudged ahead, chatting when we weren’t too focused on trying to lift our feet out of the powdery knee high snow. The views were incredible, the landscape endless. With only a few hours left of light, we decided to cut the first day short and make camp, reaching for our shovels.
Camping makes me feel like a little kid and I love it.
I remember building igloos as a kid using recycling bins to make blocks with my sister. Yukon snow is too dry for igloo building. Instead we packed down a huge mound of snow, waited for it to settle, then dug out a hollow for sleeping. Presto. It worked! The night was freezing but doable, and it was hard to leave the warmth of the quinzee the next morning.
Day two was rough.
There was unexpected humidity in the air and it snowed all day. Cold, hard flecks fell in beautiful, perfectly formed snowflakes on our clothes, but provided a constant barrage on our exposed cheeks as we worked our way through the aptly named Windy Pass. I won’t pretend there were not moments of frustration where the rhythmic crunching of our snowshoes was interrupted by a slew of expletives, but we made it to a good spot to set up camp after a long day and its funny how having a task at hand so quickly overtakes any time wasted thinking about tired bodies.
On the third morning, anticipation of completion helped us pack up quickly.
After our camera crew’s quick visit, we picked our way through the snow and headed down to Fish Lake, expecting a six-mile hike across the lake to our extraction point…and then we heard barking. We’d been so focused on the trek that I’d completely forgotten that sled dogs were one of the reasons people visit the Yukon. Sure enough, from across the lake, our guide from our initial orientation arrived atop a sled pulled by five beautiful dogs.
Mark and I traded in our snow shoes for sleds and were able to hitch the most extraordinary ride you can imagine back to camp.
Riding on a sled with dogs leading the way was a transcendent experience. If you pause for even a moment the dogs dance and jump impatiently. They get antsy. They want to run. My two lead dogs, Mabel and Brandy had both competed in the 1,000 mile Yukon quest in their youth, and it was beautiful to watch them lead the team, with experience and surety.
After thanking the dogs, warming up at a fire and some much appreciated hot chocolate, it was time for a hot shower and I found myself reflecting on the lessons from the past few days.
Winter camping is a humbling extremely physical experience.
Everything you do is connected to to survival: staying warm, keeping it moving, eating enough, staying hydrated, chopping enough firewood, making sure to not have exposed skin. This experience was filled with lessons, both for life and specific to the technical aspects of camping, and the Yukon is an incredible place to adventure.