Geo-venturing in Algonquin Park

The surrounding snow walls suck oxygen, suffocating, as panic chips away at logic. But when it is -27ºC outside the shelter, the claustrophobics of our group host a night-long battle between anxiety and warmth.

At the end of February, the PDCI Geo-ventures class set out for three days into the wilderness ofAlgonquinNational Park. The winter camping trip was the first on the course’s adventurous list and we hoped that our preparatory work would keep hypothermia and frost-bite at bay.

The bus was packed from floor to ceiling with gear. People warily watched the unsteady mound while visions of dislodged ski poles shooting into the back of unsuspecting skulls rattled around in our imaginations.

Pulling up to the campsite, the number of tents already there was surprising. For many in our little group, it was difficult to grasp that people – under their own free will – would distance themselves from the comforts of domestic suburbia to plunge into the frigid elements.

As we spilled out of the bus, sunshine washed over us. Clean air filled our lungs and we enjoyed the special optimism that only comes from being outside on a beautiful day.

Sleeping options at Mew Lake Campground included tent or quin-zhee (a hollowed out pile of snow that can vaguely resemble an igloo). Additionally, the site offered furnished, heated ‘yurts’ in case someone’s health became severely jeopardized.

Frankly, that first bone-chilling night, for many, was spent awake and shivering. I was one of the lucky ones. Cocooned in two thick sleeping bags I was quite comfortable.

Quin-zhees certainly aren’t for everyone. It can be unnerving to wake up with a foot thick solid roof of snow barely above your face. The minimal mobility of the ‘mummy bag’ doesn’t help.

After an appendage-numbing first morning, our misery subsided with breakfast and cross-country skiing along theLeafLaketrail and the slightly shorter Jack Rabbit. We sweated the uphills, zoomed the downhills and laughed at each other when we crashed at the bottom, skis and limbs intertwining into complicated knots.

The group gradually spread out until the still air was disturbed only by swooshing skis and crunching snow. For those of us who were used to constant socializing, the isolation brought an appreciation for simply spending time alone in the frosted forest.

Algonquin is a mix of southern hardwood and northern coniferous forests. The park sits on the meridian of the two forest types, and hosts a vast range of wildlife.

Back at the bus we had an intimate encounter with the very bold, very social Grey Jay, one of Algonquin’s 272 recorded birds. It is also known as the Whiskeyjack – a distortion of the Native Algonquian word ‘Wisakajack’, which means a mischievous spirit of the forest who likes to play tricks on people. The birds swooped in gracefully, perching delicately on the edges of our outstretched hands just long enough to steal away with some trail mix. Our ever-watchful teacher Mr. Greg Anderson smiled at the blatant wonder on our faces and seemed satisfied as he listened to the excited chatter.

The final morning, we woke to light freezing rain. We ate and packed up quickly before finally climbing, grungy and weather-beaten, onto the bus. Shortly after we left, the increasing intensity of the ice pellets made for a stressful drive home. But exhaustion left us thankful just for the dry warmth of the bus heater.

There’s something about pitching a bunch of teenagers into the wilderness for a few days that makes a great learning experience. In the absence of parental help and basic creature comforts, we had to grit our teeth and get through, helping and supporting each other along the way. In our Canadian winter wilderness we bonded and discovered that sometimes laughter can be a great heater.

Previously published March 14, 2007; The Perth Courier