Written By Caleb Musgrave
Photos by Robert Munilla
Winter in the Canadian wilds is a complex subject, which cannot be covered in a book, let alone a single article. Due to the vast challenges that are unique to winter, being combined with the variety of climates Canada has to offer, it is very difficult to generalize it enough to make basic guidelines. Due to this, this article will focus on winter in Ontario Boreal forest. In this scenario, it will be February, with a deep amount of snow (well over one metre deep) and has remained colder than negative fifteen degrees centigrade. Dangers at this time of year in such a region include but are not limited to; hypothermia, dehydration, frostbite and snow blindness.
With deep snow covering the majority of otherwise accessible supplies, the woods wanderer must learn to adapt to the frigid temperatures with intellect and proper equipment. The most immediate danger is hypothermia, which can set in as soon as three hours or less, depending on the situation. Proper clothing and layering is a must. Avoid cottons, simply because the moment the cotton material is wet, it loses over 90% of its’ insulative value. The moisture can come from falling into a creek, snow melting through the clothes, or simply perspiration (sweat). Wool is heavy, but its’ insulative value is second to none. It is breathable and capable of remaining extremely warm, even when soaked. Breathable is better than waterproof in the dead of winter, simply because of the dryness of the air. Remember, this is February in northern Ontario. The biggest danger of waterproof clothes in such a situation is that perspiration will remain in the clothes and near the body, making the woods wanderer colder than they would have been if dry. Take note that even with modern waterproof materials, many northern native peoples still prefer buckskins, woollens and even canvas. Why? Because these fabrics breathe. Cotton should still be avoided due to perspiration, but expensive modern waterproof breathable like Gore-tex are not necessary.
Several layers should be worn, between three and five layers. Five being optimum for extreme cold. The layer closest to the skin should be soft and light. Modern merino wools and polyester “micro-fleece” are incredible as this “Base Layer”. The next three layers should be exceedingly thicker. The final layer should have large pockets, a hood with fur trim (ideally from a wild canine, as their fur shed snow and ice-build up exceptionally well), and cuffs that can prevent snow from getting in. The classic winter parka is a perfect example.
At least three pairs of wool socks is almost mandatory in such an environment. Again, thinnest and softest sock closest to the foot, thickest one closest to the boot. There are several means of footwear for winter. One choice is the classic heavy duty winter boot with a felted wool liner that can be removed and replaced when wet. This can be made from rubber, plastics, or a vast catalogue of different materials, and personal choice is often difficult to render the “perfect” winter boot. Another option is to wear a regular boot inside what is called an “Overboot”. An overboot is simply a piece of footwear that protects the boot and foot from the extreme cold, and occasionally (depending on material its’ made from) from moisture. Such footwear coverings comes in a great variety. If money is strict, a good choice are cheap army surplus “Tent Boots” which are nothing more than a quilted nylon legging attached to a traction tread. These go good with a pair of knee-high moccasins. Another option if money is more loose are the Neo brand of overboots. Avoid steel toe boots, as steel conducts heat away from the body.
A woolen watch cap or skull cap, combined with a large thickly insulated hat. Cossack hats are a great choice for extreme cold, again, fur is very good as shedding snow and very insulative. A balaclava (also known as a ski mask) is extremely valuable for the colder days, when the face is exposed to frostbite situations. A thick, long scarf is warm, comfortable and helpful (used as a sling, a rope, a packstrap, etc). Finally -clothing wise- a pair of wool gloves inside a large pair of mittens is invaluable. Finger can lose feeling quickly in cold weather, especially if in tight fitting handwear. Due to that, wear comfortably fittinf thin wool gloves inside large roomy mittens. If one takes note of the mittens worn by northern peoples, there is usually a cord attached from one mitten to the other. This is often attributed to the fact that such large mitts can easily fall off. The cord helps prevent that. As well, with the gloves and mitten combination, one can slip their hands out of the mitts for more intricate tasks (tying, untying, cutting, etc) without having to put down their mittens anywhere.
Outside of clothing, fire and shelter are precious, but those can be described to better detail in other articles. Simply remember to find dry firewood, and that the shelter must beable to keep ones’ body warm as well as dry.
Travelling for firewood, food, supplies or other things in snow that is powder or loosely packed is difficult. The foot just seems to break right through. This can slowly but surely exhaust the woods wanderer and overtime saturate the feet with melted snow. Skis are often used in Europe and much of Northern North America by descendants of Europeans. However, the thick woods of the Boreal are often too dense to easily trek through wearing cross country skis. On the other hand, a well made pair of snowshoes are invaluable in the Ontario north. Snowshoe distribute the weight of the wearer, to lessen the depth of snow they have to walk through. After a few hours using snowshoes, new timers will often feel sore in the thighs, hips and knees. However after a few days on the trail, snowshoeing becomes as natural as a leisurely stroll.
For such a region, there are several designs that are better than others. The classic Beavertail snowshoe, though good, is not best. Bearpaw, Ottertrail, and Ojibwa snowshoe designs are far superior. The absolute best is the modified or “elongated” Bearpaw Snowhoe. This design is superior due to the length (allowing better strides and weight distribution) , the rounded heel and toe (making it manoeuvrable in the dense woods) and all around lightness. The design is so well thought of, that the majority of “modern” snowshoes, made from carbon fibre, Kevlar, aluminum, titanium and other contemporary materials use the Elongated Bearpaw snowshoe. Now of course this is mostly an opinion that can be argued by anyone who uses another type of snowshoe. However each snowshoe has been designed for a specific region, and the three mentioned (Bearpaw, Ottertrail, Ojibwa) are ones that suit the Ontario Boreal forest perfectly. Experimentation with different models is the key to perfecting the right snowshoe for the right climate and terrain.
There are some who argue that modern snowshoes are superior to the traditional wood and rawhide snowshoe, whilst others argue the reverse. The truth is that both have merit and both have drawbacks. The modern snowshoe is lighter, often stronger and some even fold up to fit inside a small rucksack. However if they break in the woods, it is very difficult to repair them. On the other hand, a heavy, cumbersome pair of “Hickory’n’Hide” snowshoes can be repaired and even replaced by an individual well experienced with a knife and axe.
W. Ben Hunt describes in his book “The Complete How-to Book of Indiancraft: 68 projects for authentic Indian articles from Tepee to Tom-tom” how to make what he called the “Alaskan Eskimo Snowshoe”. This is in fact the Ojibwa Snowshoe, otherwise known as the Cree Snowshoe. Regardless of which first nation it is titled after, the book shows a good template on how to make these rugged, effective pair of snowshoes. If such a pair is unable to be made, he also shows how to make “Wooden Snowshoes”, which are boards of wood (basswood or ash preferably) that are shaped like elongated Bearpaw snowshoes, and the toe steam bent into an upward curve. This upward curve is needed in any snowshoe, to help it lift over the snow, rather than get dug into it.
In the woods, snowshoes can be made by simply lashing evergreen boughs to ones’ feet. Though these are not the best choice, if no other choice is capable, than the evergreen boughs must suffice. The best are the wicker snowshoe. This requires two large piles of thin shrubby plants, such as dogwood, willow or even wild grapevine. Simply weave the materials into two large circles, making the hoops out of several sticks at a time (like wicker). Afterwards make a base inside of these circles by pushing sticks through, making a crude, but very effective snowshoe. There are as many ways to make a pair of snowshoes as there are people wanting to make them. So researching and experimenting is paramount.
On such a large layer of white, like a winter field or forest, the surface is able to reflect a great deal of sunlight. Over between a few minutes and a few hours of exposure to so much bright light, the eyes can begin to feel like sand is being poured over them. This painful sensation can continue for days, even after tears and cold compresses. What caused it? The Ultraviolet light reflecting off the snow slowly caused photokeratitis, which is basically a sunburn to the retinas. It is said that fresh snow reflects eighty percent of UV rays, compared to sand or ocean water (both reflect under thirty percent). Commonly called “Snow Blindness” it can be detrimental and must be prevented at all costs.
The Inuit people carved (and still do carve) antler, bone and ivory goggles to combat. These are made by shaping the material to the shape of the head, to fit comfortably over the eyes. Narrow slits are cut horizontally where the eyes are, and the insides are either painted or charred black. This cuts down on a great deal of UV light, the snow goggles acting like squinted eyelids, and the blackened insides absorbing the light rather than allowing it to remain bright. A pair can be made in under two hours with a light piece of wood such as cedar, poplar or basswood. The Inuit snow goggle must fit snugly to the face if they are to work properly. Therefore it is best to make them rather than buy them, to make sure they fit perfectly.
Ski goggles, or smoke-tinted lenses on sunglasses are modern alternatives. However it has been noted by many outdoors experts that such goggles or sunglasses either let the ultra violet light in from the sides, or fog up, and many suggest the traditional wear of the Inuit people.
If prevention against snow blindness does not prevail, seek medical aide. If that is not possible, bed rest with cold compresses and “artificial tears” to help hydrate the eyes is the best means of recovery.
Protecting the skin from windburn and frostbite is crucial. Frostbite is the freezing and damaging of the dermal layers (skin). This can lead to severe pain, and if not treated by doctors, can lead to nasty infections. Again, prevention is heavily important. Many native peoples and northern explorers have used grease, rendered from animals. Covering the skin with these processed oils helps cut down on wind-chill and even protects against frostbite. Pilots in the First World War often used petroleum jelly for similar reasons. Wearing a face mask such as a balaclava is a good tip as well.
Facial hair catches moisture from breathing and freezes. This leads to a great deal of frostbite cases on the face. Regular shaving helps cut down on this danger. Facial hair does not provide a great deal of insulation in the first place, so do not feel bad about cutting off. Some anthropologists believe this is why Native peoples did not often grow facial hair, same with many other northern peoples. Exposure to such a frigid environment could perfectly well make the bodies adapt to not grow hair around the mouth and nose, just as well as it adapted the typical Inuit to their frigid environment (barrel chest with large nasal cavities to heat the arctic air).
In high stress, the human body produces greater amounts of Urea. This toxic compound is removed from the body via urinating. In frigid weather, the body is definitely being stressed, and due to this a greater amount of water must be consumed, to help prevent dehydration or urea-poisoning. Fresh snow is usually only 10% water, the rest of it being air. Due to this, eating snow will make the woods wanderer often thirstier. Melt the snow by any means possible, whether it be by melting over a fire, near a fire, or inside the shelter. Drink it warm, and if possible make it into tea to assist in acquiring vitamins and electrolytes. Scurvy is a common plight in the north during winter. To prevent this, constant intake of vitamin C is required. This can be done by making tea out of pine needles, cedar needles or any other edible evergreen. The Labrador tea plant is another option, being an evergreen marsh plant that is very common in the north woods that is rich with vitamin C.
A great deal of preparation, practice and prevention is involved in a safe time in the winter woodlands. However, when one takes into consideration how much more time would be involved trying to fix the problem versus simply preventing it, one can see how simple of a life it really is, even in the wintertime. Living in the wilderness when the snow is on the ground, the lakes are frozen and the woods are silent is a peaceful, beautiful experience very few ever witness. To simply snowshoe out with a toboggan loaded with the right gear and the right food (high calories with a great emphasis on fats, carbs and proteins) is an amazing adventure that more of us should try this coming winter.