The cold air seeping in woke me with a start. I could feel it penetrating from every direction and I fumbled for the penlight and turned it on. The vapor from our breath clung tightly to the air as it rose slowly to freeze on the walls of the tent. Everything was covered in frost – the ceiling, the walls, my sleeping bag, and the hat I was wearing..the sides of my face….covered in white. I looked at my watch – 2:30 am – and reached for the small thermometer I had placed on the tent floor when I crawled into the sleeping bag – I had to look at it twice – it read 22 below 0 F. I leaned back on the makeshift pillow for a moment and listened to the stillness of the cold night occasionally broken with the loud snapping of trees in the cold air – often sounding like gunfire.
I was relaxing in front of a fire in the crispness of early morning when Crack! A sound like an explosion came from behind me in the woods. I scanned the trees and saw that a maple tree had “exploded”. The explosion caused a big crack in the tree about three feet high. When a winter wind stirs the frozen trees, they sometimes appear to burst vertically. When it was 40 degrees below zero at night, I lay awake and listened to the trees explode. That’s a true wilderness thermometer!
—Linda Runyon, The Essential Wild Food Survival Guide
I realized I had to pee….I cinched the mummy bag back over my head pulling it as tight as it could go so that only my nose was exposed to the cold and tried to go back to sleep. But it didn’t go away. I loosened the mummy bag and switched on the penlight again. Everything I touched melted the frost on it and cooled my skin. I thought about my boots out in the vestibule and cringed at the thought of putting those cold pieces of iron back on my feet to venture out to pee. Then I had a thought – I was sleeping next to the door of the tent – I could probably actually relieve myself without having to get out of my sleeping bag. It sounded like the perfect idea at the time and I reached out and unzipped the bottom of the tent door – inched my sleeping back over to it – unzipped the bag – and took a whizz right in the vestibule without having to get out in the cold air. The next morning was rather comical as the four of us rousted ourselves from the relative warmth to venture outside and crawling into the vestibule noticing the colored snow and calling out – wtf – who pissed in the vestibule? That morning we had a group member that had the beginnings of frostbite on his feet and each of us took turns putting his foot onto our chest to warm them up.
This was a trip with the boy scouts known as Okpik -Inuit for Snowy Owl and pronounced as (OOk’ pick). A High Adventure winter camping/survival weekend that at the time (1980’s) was in Howland Maine. We had backpacks and sleds with our gear and skied into the woods about a mile or so and made camp…learning cold weather survival skills along the way. One of the things that sticks out in my mind is heating the water we would drink for the day and then wearing it around our necks under our clothing so that it warms the chest..and learning to layer properly so that the perspiration from the days exertion wouldn’t freeze you later.
I remembered this story this morning at 3:40 am. We’re in the middle of a pretty good cold snap here in Maine along with some pretty decent wind and this morning I felt that same sort of gentle brush of cold across my face that I felt all those years ago in that cold tent. As I get older I feel the cold more - I can
feel it enveloping and reaching out with it’s icy fingers. And I remembered that on the two trips we took to OKPIK my Dad was there too. On our second trip he experimented with digging a trench in the snow, lining it with a space blanket or similar, and sleeping in the trench with your sleeping bag with the theory that the surrounding snow would help to insulate you during the night. However, he did this within the drip edge of a big spruce – a spruce that had a lot of snow on it from recent snowfall. During the night the wind picked up a bit and the snow would slide off the spruce branches and onto him with an audible thump. I was probably 14 or 15 on those trips which would have made Dad about 55 at the time. I’m soon to be 45 and I would have to think long and very very hard before every going winter camping again – especially in those kinds of temperatures. Dad’s pretty tough in my book. If you’re reading this and you remember where in Howland the Adventure Base was please let me know – I’d love to go for a little walk up there after all these years.