The mountains are blue

Paul Smith
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The first week of March turned out to be quite a freezing and chilling introduction to the commonly considered longest and dreariest of months.

Robert and me in front of the Cat Hill Hilton. — Submitted photo

I had the seven days off from my regular employment and felt compelled do something a bit on the adventurous side.

Tent camping in winter is always a blast, so I scheduled a mid-week overnight trip to the Avalon backwoods with a couple of my more hardy buddies. At the time we hatched our plans, we had no idea that we’d be camped out during one of the coldest nights of the coldest winters experienced in quite some years. Thanks, Mr. Snoddon.

It’s not my first time sleeping in an unheated tent during a cold, crisp winter night. Last year, these same two buddies and I did the deed twice, once in February and again in March.

On those occasions, we had hiked about eight kilometres before setting up camp, so the logistics were somewhat more difficult. Not only did we have to carry all our supplies and camping gear on our backs, which was challenge enough, but we also had to avoid getting soaked with sweat. Given that much of the inbound hike was upgrade, a struggle against gravity, fitness became a key element in determining our survival odds, or at the very least our level of camping comfort and enjoyment.

Exhaustion and perspiration can potentially kill you in a cold, harsh set of survival circumstances, so be aware and stay as fit as possible. Regular exercise pays off big time when the chips are down.

This time around, we decided to drive to our campsite on our ATVs, not that we’re getting old, tired or lazy, but because an opportunity presented itself.

This has been an icy winter, at least when considered in the context of the past decade or so. Spider Pond is a main thoroughfare for winter travel around these parts. Outdoor inclined folks, including trouters, hunters, woodcutters and snowmobilers, have been using its ice cover to access the Conception Bay North hinterland for many years.

My father would be 102 if still alive, and I remember him fondly telling tales of woodcutting and angling exploits in Spider Pond. Unfortunately, the ice hasn’t been safe for any extended period during recent winters. Last winter, quads and sleds may have used the pond for only about two weeks. Now the Spider Pond ice route is solid and safe, so we decided to drive in to an area known as Cat Hill Valley and spend the night in tent. It is way too distant to walk for a one-night stay.

The cold ones

On March 5, I headed in over Spider Pond with my two buddies, Robert and Cameron. The mercury hung in the tube at about -12 C and this was the warmest part of the day. Loaded down with camping gear we speeded into the frosty, nose-nipping wind.  I have no idea of the wind chill, but I’m sure it was far from pretty.

Hand warmers on my ride, a Christmas gift from Goldie, would have been very nice, but they were still sitting in my garage uninstalled. She was not impressed with this news delivered via cellphone from Cat Hill Valley. I must make amends. No pity was expressed for my chilled throttle thumb.

Actually my mountaineering mitts saved the day.

I gave them to myself for Christmas, Mountain Hardwear variety, allegedly the warmest mitts on Earth, a valid choice for Everest and polar expeditions. I hate cold hands. There is no such thing as overkill for warmth and protection of extremities. I’d like to keep them intact.

We chose a site protected by spruce and fir to set our tent. The wind we would avoid, if at all possible. It would not matter much to our sleeping comfort inside the tent, but we hoped to spend some time around a rousing campfire, cooking up some moose, drinking a beer or two, and having a good old woodsy yarn.

Notice I said just a couple of beer — alcohol and cold weather camping is not an ideal mix. It speeds up the onset of chills and hypothermia. Don’t overindulge in situations where cold can potential spoil your fun or even threaten your life.

There’s a funny line I must relate pertaining to the beer. With the moose and onions simmering away in my steel frying pan, Robert reckons it’s about time we crack open a cold one. Now imagine this. We are sitting on the snow, posteriors separated from direct contact by only snowshoes and spruce boughs. Our hoods are drawn tight, and despite our careful choosing of a sheltered location, bone-chilling winds whip around us, and send flankers flying from our fire in gusting random directions. This is definitely not a typical setting for a Coors Light commercial, the beer brand Robert had brought along.

Suspected irony in the “time for a cold one” remark got us primed for Robert’s big punch line. I’m not sure if he planed this or not. You know the mountains on the Coors Light labels, the ones that turn blue when the beer is chilled and ready for peak refreshment?

Robert flicks his bottle cap into the fire and takes a long look at his beer, aided in pitch black darkness only by the glow of his LED headlamp: “Yup, the mountains are blue. Down the hatch.” Cameron and I nearly split our sides laughing.

Snug as bugs

Whenever you set a campfire on deep snow, you must ensure it doesn’t burn down into a cavernous hole.

Never forget to lay down green logs as a base. You should get at least four or five hours of big fire burning before the base logs burn through and the fire collapses into a cold hole melted out by the intense heat. At about 10 o’clock, our fire foundered and we decided to call it a night. You don’t get much radiant heat from a fire in a hole. The temperature hovered at about -20 C. We would be testing the limits of our -180 C EN rated sleeping bags. I’ll explain what EN means another time; suffice to say now that it’s a standardization attempt for outdoor gear. There are, however, complications. We crawled confidently into our mummy bags.

Some folks might think that a small tent in winter traps body heat and keeps you at least a little bit warmer that outside. Not so. The tent must be fully ventilated. If you don’t open the windows and roof vent, if you have one, condensation and frost will swiftly build up on the walls and roof. It would be like sleeping in an icicle.

Essentially the air in the tent is at about the same temperature as the air outside, but without the wind chill. You’d be surprised how much air flow you need to avoid frosting up. Keep this in mind if you decide to give winter camping a try. In fact, if tenting in the cold for the first time, I’d suggest a night in the backyard, or close to the truck or car, just in case things go wrong.

For our inaugural outing, we set up close to our cabin and emergency heat.

On this adventure, everything went just fine. We all slept comfortably, just as warm as if we were in our cozy beds at home, and no morning traffic noise.

Goose down is a wonderful gift from the gods. Thanks a million, Marmot, for sewing the stuff into a mummy bag.

In the morning, coffee was brewed from freshly ground beans on the snow in front of the tent — better than java served in the finest of cafés.

I suspect the environment had much to do with that, a fine ambiance of sky, spruce, fir and snow. The day was spent ice fishing and snowshoeing, but that’s a story for another time.

Paul Smith, a native of Spaniard’s Bay,

fishes and wanders the outdoors at every opportunity. He can be contacted at, or follow him on twitter @flyfishtherock

Geographic location: Cat Hill Valley, Conception Bay

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