That Time I Slept Outside in January

Yep. I slept outside. In January. In Alberta. I mean, I had a tent but it offered zero heat retention and even less protection from all the scary noises in the  bush. 

My poor pup had the unlucky fortune to be dragged along with me, which actually seems only fair because most of the places I want to go, I can’t because they aren’t pet friendly. So too bad Moose dog, this isn’t the last time you’ll be forced along with me. 

Anyway, the whole thing started with wanting to spend the weekend away. I wanted to rent a cabin in the mountains, but again most weren’t pet friendly, and if they were, they were so expensive. I had no one to come along with me so I didn’t want to float that pricey cabin bill alone. So then I started looking for low budget accommodations, and there is lots of options for that in Alberta….but only in the summer. Everything here shuts down for the winter. That’s always been a pet peeve of mine. 

I ended up settling on winter camping. When you google it, lots of people do it and quite a few campgrounds are open for winter camping. I picked Elk Island National Park because it’s close to home, and if I needed to pull the pin, it’d be a short drive home in an emergency. 

I prepped and packed everything up and headed to Elk Island on Saturday January 21st. It was a very foggy day and about -5. I got there and paid and the girl was not the least bit surprised I was camping alone. I thought she’d have some words of encouragement or advice for me, but she didn’t. I guessed she sees a lot of weird people coming through there. 

I got to the campsite and of course, it was walk in camping; so I had to haul everything in by hand. Up a hill. In knee deep snow. It took awhile, but I got it all in, got the snow cleared for the tent, set up the tent, and started to work on a fire. About an hour later, I started to panic because I still had no fire and the sun was going down. The wood had been soaked from all the rain in the fall, then it froze when winter came, and basically they were big, solid logs of ice. I used over a cup of fire starter trying to get it going, along with a whole newspaper and a whole pack of matches. I split the wood as small as I could and tried everything but it wouldn’t go. So I went back to the wood pile, dug to the middle and pulled out the lightest, driest pieces I could find. Then I went back and stacked big logs on the bottom of the firepit, to bring the top of the fire closer to the grille. I started again with little dry pieces and paper and more fire starter. It finally caught as the sun was going down. The wood had been too wet and the kindling wasn’t getting enough air. 

Now that that crisis was resolved, I had to keep hauling and chopping wood to make sure the fire didn’t go out. I hauled and chopped and hauled and chopped. And then hauled and chopped some more. It was so much work just to keep the fire going. I’d split the logs and lay them against the sides of the pit to dry them before I put them in. 

When I wasn’t chopping wood, I made veggie dogs over the fire for dinner. They’re so good. My favorite camping meal. 

So at this point it was dark out (like 6 pm) and it dropped to about -7 and the wind picked up. I was cold so I went to make a tea and realized if I left my jug of water in the jug, it would freeze solid. By morning,  I’d have no way of pouring it or thawing it. So I poured the water into my metal camping mugs so they would freeze as single servings portions. I poured the rest into the kettle and set it aside to freeze as well. 

I made myself a tea and sat by the fire (not for long, there was more hauling and chopping to do) and all was well…until Moose freaked out. He got up and took off into the trees, barking and growling. I thought let him run, it’s fine, probably just a squirrel or fox. Then I remembered a coyote will bait a dog into the bush, where there will be a pack of them waiting to attack the dog. So I freaked out, of course, and yelled for Moose to come back. He came crashing back through the trees about 30 seconds later. Then in the silent dark, something big slowly walked away, crunching the snow and trees as it went. I was terrified it was a wolf or something, but my brother says it was probably just a deer or elk that’s slow and tame from being in the park where people feed them. So ya, let’s go with that. 

So after that, I was on edge all night and it started to get colder so I went to bed around 9 pm. I had an air mattress, a down blanket, a -20 rated sleeping bag, another down blanket, a Moose dog, and a regular blanket. I wore long underwear pants and a long sleeved shirt, an insulated sweater, two pairs of socks, a scarf, a toque, and a neck warmer, and got into my sleeping bag. Moose jumped on top, I covered him with the blanket and a Carhartt coat. I was warm enough all night but around 7 am I woke up cold. I had to tough it out and wait another hour or so before the sun came up at 830 am. I slept ok, basically woke up every two hours because of some terrifying noise. Everything is much more scary in the dark. 

Alas, I survived. I got up with the sun and thanked Mother Earth for letting me live; my dramatic, first world self probably should’ve died out there in measly -9, because I’m not at all accustomed to having to work so hard just to survive. It made me appreciate the hardiness of the First Nations who have called this unforgiving, frozen expanse home for thousands of years, unperturbed by the harsh climate, all the while making a comfortable living off the land. And the determination of the settlers who came to this New World looking for farmland, and were greeted by a winter like they had never known. It’s more than fair to say I would not be able to survive a winter outdoors in Alberta; the weather, the elements, and the lack of accessible water, makes the creatures of the night seem like the least of my worries. 

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