A trapper builds himself a cabin in the North to serve as a base camp but doesn't spend much time there. Most of the winter he and his dogs are on the move, for traplines are long and there is a lot of empty space that must be travelled again and again as he sets, visits, empties and resets his traps. Most of his nights are spent in the open away from his cabin with its cosy fire and its log walls to shut out the wind. And those are winter nights in a land where the mercury can drop below sixty degrees Fahrenheit and where blizzards are common. To survive outside in such a climate, a man must know the secrets of camping in the snow.
Fred and I knew nothing at all about this in the winter of 1924-25 when we first went into the North, and we might have frozen to death on our first trapline had it not been for our travelling acquaintances, the Chipewyan Indians. With centuries of winter lore in their tradition, they walked into storms and bitter cold as casually as a city man hails a taxi. White men new to the North, we watched and imitated them and learned how to get along later by ourselves.
When a man plans to spend a night in the open, his first job is to clear a place for himself and his dogs to sleep. With his snowshoes, he shovels snow from the chosen spot. Then he tramps it down firmly until smooth and hard. Next, he cuts spruce boughs and spreads them over the hard-packed snow. If he has a tent, this serves as its floor -- but for the first fifteen years that I was in the North, I camped outside without a tent. I used to put a robe on top of the spruce boughs.
At first, I used a bear-hide robe, but later I found that caribou hide is better because it is warmer and because, when it is carried in a toboggan all the time, it gets soft and partly tanned. There is one drawback to caribou hide, though: The hair breaks off easily and tends to get into your food. This does not happen with bear hide. All the same, I preferred caribou hide, for, with a caribou robe spread over my spruce boughs, I never felt the cold creeping in from underneath. Later still I used an eiderdown robe. A man can keep very warm and comfortable in an eiderdown for three winters, but if he camps out for long periods in really cold weather, the heat from his body condenses, the robe becomes damp, eventually it freezes stiff. Every three years I learned to get a new eiderdown. Three years was its maximum life in the North.
A wise man takes along canvas as well for his overnight camping. I learned to chop down a few small spruce trees, place them upright around my robe, and spread the canvas over them as a windbreak. This was protection on snowy nights though, even so, a little snow usually seeped into my bed.
After the snow is packed, the spruce boughs laid, and the robe in place, there is another night-time chore. Wood must be chopped for the fire. I always tried to camp in a place where there was plenty of wood, for sleeping outside requires a lot of firewood when the weather is cold and the nights are long.
Jackpine makes the best wood because it throws very few sparks. This is important for a fire inside a tent because sparks quickly burn holes in the canvas, but even when a man is camping in the open, the lack of sparks is desirable. He often needs to dry his clothes or his bedding close to the fire at night, and certainly, he doesn't want holes in them.
It never really gets dark on a winter's night in the North. With plenty of wood split, a fire going merrily, and his bed waiting behind its canvas windbreak, a man can enjoy the meal that has been cooking while he made his camp. Perhaps it is a chunk of moose or caribou meat boiled in his kettle or roasted in a pan over the flames. Perhaps it is smoked and filleted whitefish. Or it can be dried meat -- maybe the pemmican that the natives have taught him to pound out of dried caribou meat mixed with blueberries for a special treat. Always the meat is mixed with bear fat, for fat in the North is a must for survival and bears are its best source. Without the protection of grease, a trapper would surely perish during the long, cold winter.
It was pleasant camping out at night when there were quite a few men, like the times I travelled with the natives. There were seven of us on one such trip, and each had his special job to do when we made camp. In no time at all we had the snow shovelled away, the spruce boughs down, the robes spread, wood cut, fires made, the dogs and ourselves fed. Tall, dry trees were used to make a long night-time fire. When a man is alone, these chores take a long time. Still, they keep a solitary man so busy that he never feels lonesome. He talks to his dogs for company as he prepares for the night ahead.
Nightfall is the time to feed the dogs their one meal of the day. One fish must be thawed out for each dog. They devour it eagerly, then curl up in tight woolly balls on their spruce boughs to rest. Only on a desperately cold night will they whimper as they try in vain to tighten themselves against the cruel bite of the frost.
A man seldom sleeps right through a winter night in the open. He must crawl out of his robes after a few hours to let the body heat escape (otherwise condensation would stiffen the robe) and to replenish the fire which has probably died down to red embers. Sometimes the wind has changed. Then a face full of flying snow awakens him and sends him scurrying to change the position of his canvas screen.
Getting out of a warm robe into a fresh layer of snow does not make a trapper a happy man. Truly, there are many hardships attached to camping out in the North -- but hardships don't hurt anybody. They certainly build up a man's resistance to the cold. I remember once visiting a fish camp at Cree Lake when trout were being hauled out by Caterpillar tractor. The camp owner, Fritz Clarke of Meadow Lake, had thrown it up late in the fall from green logs and it wasn't too warm. At the time of my visit, his men were shivering around the airtight heater grumbling about the cold. I had taken off most of my clothes and was sitting as far from the stove as I could manage and sweating even so -- as uncomfortable from heat as they were from lack of it. Early the next morning, I set out with my five dogs to make the forty-five mile trip to the north end of Cree Lake. It was a cold morning with fresh snow on the trail, hard pulling for the dogs. I ran most of the way to keep warm and to make it easier for them, now and then hopping on the back of my toboggan for a rest.
The next summer I happened to meet Fritz back at Meadow Lake and we were talking about the time I dropped into his Cree Lake camp with the airtight heater that wasn't keeping his men warm.
"Did you know, Ed," Fritz asked me, "that it was sixty below the morning you left us and made that forty-five mile run to the North end of the lake?"
I hadn't known that -- but if I had seen a thermometer that morning, it wouldn't have made any difference to my plans. It is all in what a man gets used to. Cold weather doesn't have to bother you too much if you are out all the time. I seldom spent more than four nights a month in my cabin.
All the same, long stretches of cold weather are unpleasant. Some years there is snow on all the trees, and a thaw or rain in the fall will mean that all winter the spruce boughs are covered with ice. That makes them miserable for a man who uses spruce boughs as beds for himself and his dogs.
Until I tried it after fifteen years of camping without one, I didn't realize how comfortable a tent can be in the wintertime. But one year when I was alone with five dogs and a big toboggan, I bought a small tent. That was the best investment I ever made. The tent was five feet by five with a three-foot wall. From then on I put my tent up near some creek where there was plenty of small spruce and some open water (as there usually is in the narrows). It is much better to camp near open water than to have to melt snow or ice. After packing down the snow and laying some spruce boughs, I would set up my tent with ridgepoles through the two holes along the peak and uprights on the outside. That didn't take long. When the tent was up, I would put a dried caribou hide where I planned to sleep and my robe on the hide. No cold could seep up from underneath.
I always had a grub box, a fork, a hunting knife, a cup, a pail for making tea, a frying pan and a cooking kettle to put inside my tent. I would flatten two good-sized sticks and put three cans on them with my camp stove on top of that: The cans kept the stove off the spruce boughs so there was no danger of the wood catching fire. Cans and stove pipes could be packed away inside the stove for travelling.
As I have said, it was jackpine that I preferred for firewood, and jackpine is plentiful in the North. It is the only tree that grows on high land and on the white sand that covers most of the country. I learned to put round green wood in the bottom of my tin stove because dry wood in a light tin stove will soon burn the tin out. Moreover, by the time I was ready for bed, the green wood would have burned down to red embers and if I piled more green wood on them, there would still be a fire in the morning.
As soon as I could after stopping for the night I used to start a fire in my stove, put on a kettle of water, and lean some meat against the hot tin to roast. By the time I had bedded down my dogs and cut enough firewood for the night, my supper would be cooked and I could settle down to enjoy it, knowing that the day's work was done.
Every fall when I made my first trip north, I would try to find a series of places where there was open water, dry wood and small spruce trees. There I would put up my tent each night. The next time I made the trip, these places would be waiting, the snow already hard-packed and extra wood waiting. I could come in even after dark to one of these places where I had previously camped and it wouldn't take long to get ready for the night. It doesn't ever get really dark in the wintertime there, as I have said; and besides, I carried candles and a gas lamp too.
It was really comfortable to stay in a tent, especially after so many years of camping out in the wind and the snow and the cold. It was just like starting a new way of life. When I felt like it, I could stay over an extra day on my trapline or explore a new country and set out a short line in a new area. Wherever I put up my tent, I was always at home. I could stay a whole month on my trapline if the notion struck me. My dogs always kept me from feeling lonely. I always made a good bed for them and tried to feed them well, though I have known natives who drove their dogs as much as four days without food. Dogs work hard for a man and are his best friends in the North. They deserve good treatment. I have been on the trapline when I have heard my dogs whining all night from the cold, but no man can control bitter weather. The longest I ever left them unfed was one day, and that was only when I had nothing for them.
As I have said, a tent gives a man more comfort than an unprotected bed on spruce boughs. But I have heard of men who didn't bother even with the spruce boughs, let alone a tent. I have heard of an old-timer who was supposed to have slept by his campfire all winter when he was on his trapline. It is said that he walked from Cree Lake to the north end of Reindeer Lake and back again, always sleeping on the ground beside his campfire. This may be true. It is possible. A man can take the dried hides of two cow caribou, trim off the legs and sew the hides together, in this way making a very warm sleeping bag that is light to carry on a trapline and that might serve for sleeping by a campfire. But I couldn't do that and I would never try it unless I had to.
One fall I was caught out, without camping equipment. In our travels, my partner and I came to a big lake that we could not travel on and we were unable to get back to our camp by nightfall. We built up a big fire on the white sand. When it was time to sleep, we moved the fire to a new spot and put some spruce boughs on the sand where it had been. Sand holds the heat a long time. We lay on the spruce boughs with only a piece of canvas over us. At first, we were almost too hot, and we managed a good night's sleep for sand held some of the fire's warmth until next morning.
The experience that made me afraid of sleeping beside a campfire happened the winter that the caribou failed to come -- a story that I will tell later. At this time my partner and I went separate ways for a time. I left the dogs with him and set out to hang up our traps on the line because we couldn't keep up the trapline without food for our dogs and ourselves. At first, the weather was fairly good, but the farther I went the colder it grew. When the weather is really cold, the fur doesn't run as well as they do when it is milder. Since I had no dogs to pull provisions, I was without robes and I was sleeping beside my campfire.
For the first four nights I would waken when the dying fire made me feel chilly and I would build it up again. It takes a lot of wood for a whole night when it is very cold, but I was in a good territory where there was lots of jackpines -- dry wood with no bark on it.
I made a different camp every night, sometimes having better luck at finding wood than at other times. The fifth night I was camping where there was especially good jackpine. I built up a roaring fire and dozed off. Later I woke to find it had died down and I piled on fresh wood. Then I fell into a deep, deep sleep. I hadn't had a proper night's rest since leaving camp and I was very tired. Perhaps four hours went by. I remember coming half awake and seeing most of the wood burnt to ashes, only a bit of red left. How drowsy I felt, how warm and comfortable! I closed my eyes. Surely the fire would keep. Suddenly something told me I must get up and pile on more wood, urgently reminding me that it is hard to start a fire when the original heat has died out.
Struggling to get to my feet, I found to my horror that I could hardly move! For four hours I had lain with my face to the fire. My back was so chilled it was almost rigid. When I managed to build up that fire again, it was then I realized how cold I had been. My nose, my cheeks, the tips of my fingers were all frost-bitten. Exhausted as I was at that time, I still marvel at what made me rouse myself instead of drifting off to sleep again -- into a sleep from which I would never have awakened. Sometimes I remember that in those days my parents were still alive and I wonder if perhaps a message of survival came through to me from them.
It was sixty below and colder when I made that near-fatal trip. I didn't dare to sleep any more that night. I started on the trail again early the next morning under a full moon that made the world bright as day. About noon I found a place where the sun was beating down on a place, a spot from which all the snow had blown away. I made a fire, put down spruce boughs and slept for a few hours. In this way, travelling at night and napping when I dared during the day, I finished the trip back to camp.
That trip lasted for ten nights. When I finally arrived back in camp, Fred was there, back from his hunting trip with a small woodland caribou to keep us going for a while. I told him about my trip and how nearly I had come to freezing to death beside my campfire.
"I wouldn't make another trip like that one, Fred, for all the fur in the North!" I told him.
All Fred said was, "That's a lot of fur, Ed."