Winter camping in Nopiming.

Once upon a time, I thought that camping season started on May long weekend. Over the years however, I’ve come to realize that it never really ends. Year by year, each shoulder season excursion I’ve embarked on has pushed a little further against the edges of the calendar – until I ultimately found that late autumn isn’t actually that distant from early spring, and that there really is no off-season in between.

I’ve noticed that a lot of people think I’m crazy – the idea of subjecting oneself to the elements by choice can be hard to grasp, but doing so is actually quite enjoyable beyond the requisite effort and perhaps a little discomfort. This is hard to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it themselves. Trust me on this though: if you ever get the opportunity to step out into nature in the “off-season”, I wholeheartedly encourage you to embrace it and experience it for yourself.

Beyond the forgiving comfort of July and August, an untamed spirit returns to the wilderness as humanity retreats back to the city. All public services shut down with no one left to serve, and so those of us who do choose to venture out need to fend for ourselves. With less external support, basic tasks such as route finding, camp establishment, and survival have higher stakes. With the greater challenges however, come matching rewards – most notably an internal sense of respect for the diverse cast of characters playing their part in nature. Intimate encounters with one’s edge are humbling and liberating experiences, and with deeper understanding of one’s role in the wider world comes an appreciation for things upon which you rely but may have never realized before.

There is a quiet beauty to winter, which is a welcome balance to summer’s fervor. Plants and animals slow their pace, and humans too follow suit, as animals who have forgotten they are animals. Though humanity’s individual connections to the natural world may have become distant, the resources consumed and discarded by people remain linked to it. Those who step out of the manmade world and back into the natural world have seen it: in the geology, the water, the weather – never mind all the life these fundamental forces impact. In urban centres however, this consequential impact is distant; out of sight and often out of mind.

Snow falls from the sky and covers our sins; trash, pollution, destruction…scars are hidden beneath a pure white blanket. With it we are given a glimpse of what once was: a fresh ecosystem in balance. However, this is no final burial; the thaw will come as time inevitably marches forward. We will have to face our impact upon the earth once again, one scar at a time. Will people see their impact, or will they look away?

Are we beyond healing? The optimistic conservationist inside of me says, “No. Now get to work so that you don’t make me out to be a liar.” And so I observe, and I photograph and I write and I share. Like a ghostly image burned in the mind, winter’s demonstration of what once was gives hope for what still may be.

Humans exist within the greater ecosystem in a way they never have before – plentifully and with high resource requirements – and that’s fine. It’s not about wilderness remaining untouched, but about being careful with our touch; about being balanced in our use and interaction. It is seeing the ecosystem as a whole and understanding both our role and impact within it. What we need to be cautious of is the perspective that humanity is above and separate from the natural world. This dangerous thought logically leads to selfish and damaging actions, the repercussions of which will be bore by the generations to come.

Can we find balance again? The answer to this question is up to each of us. A new natural state of balance would look much different than the old one, but I dare to hope that it is possible.

These are reflections and questions that arose during a recent experience winter camping in the woods. I thought they were worth sharing.

Trail hiking in for wild winter camping

Breaking trail through unpacked snow. With sled and pack, everything needs to be shouldered into the backcountry.

Pulling sled of gear through backcountry

Despite it being winter, the hike in requires careful shedding of layers to avoid perhaps the most uncomfortable situation of the season: sweating, getting wet, and chilling yourself to the bone.

Winter vista at an unnamed lake in Nopiming Provincial Park

After some bushwacking, the unnamed lake circled on our map reveals itself. This frozen landscape is the the destination for this winter camp.

The winter sun hangs low on the horizon, casting long shadows that reveal detail in the minimalist landscape that otherwise might go unnoticed.

Fresh footprints on fresh snow

Fresh footprints on fresh snow.

Tent set up for winter camping on an unnamed Manitoba lake

…and at the end of the footprints, camp.

Tent set up on a minimalist winter landscape

A minimalist scene commands the view outside the tent door. Also note the plenty of coat hooks available…

Gathered around the fire pit while winter camping

…coat hooks for camp mates when they come to visit from just around the corner.

Warming hands and cooking over the campfire

Warming hands and chili.

Base camp for a Manitoba winter wildcamping excursion

As the sun sets and the temperature drops, the campfire becomes a natural hub to huddle around.

Climbing rocks of the Canadian Shield to take in the sunset

Climbing steep rocks of the Canadian Shield to watch the sun dip behind the horizon.

Winter's dusk in the Canadian Shield

Dusk deepens an scene of already strong contrast, and a distant reminder of civilization streaks across the sky.

Huddled around the campfire after dark

The cold and dark of night are abated by the warmth and light of friends around the campfire.