Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The things we do for art

Barbara here, and in case you don't know, that's something of a miracle. A week ago, my continued existence was in some doubt. Not because I had some dreadful disease or was planning to enter the Indie 500, but because I was going winter camping. In Northern Ontario, during the last two weeks of January, statistically the coldest period in the northern hemisphere. This latter fact only occurred to me once I had registered for the trip and paid my money.

As a writer, I am always trying for realism, accuracy, and vivid description. I don't want readers to be yanked out of my stories by the outraged thought 'that's ridiculous!' or 'that's not what it's like!' My next book is set in the Laurentian Mountains north of Montreal, on a camping/ skiing expedition in the middle of winter, and at some point in balmy September, immersed the early pages of the first draft, I thought "well, I can't possibly write about winter camping without experiencing it". Without hearing the wolf howls at night and the squeak of boots on frozen snow, without feeling the bone-chilling cold of the ground beneath my sleeping bag and the frost on my nose, without seeing how the die-hard lovers of the great winter outdoors cope with stoves and tents and cooking (not to mention latrines, which I plan to give only passing mention in the book).

So I decided to try it myself. How hard could it be? I'm a fit, adventurous, essentially upbeat soul who is prepared to try most things once in the interests of sampling life. There are few things I won't consider. Eating cockroaches. swimming with sharks, and playing with snakes are among those few. But I love the great outdoors, I love camping, I love crisp, fluffy snow. It will be fun!

So I researched winter camping adventure companies, found one that sounded perfect for my needs, and paid my money. I spent half of December and January combing the sales in an attempt to get at least some of the gear the outfitter recommended. How many times will I use  -20 degree sleeping bag? Or camp booties? Or anoraks? So I opted to rent some of the gear from the outfitter to save costs and ensure the right gear. And last week, with the dogs in the kennel and our duffel bags packed, my friend and I set off. The temperature, which had been ridiculously warm since November, suddenly plunged, and we found ourselves hiking eight kilometres in to the base camp in -20 sunshine.

The base camp reminded me of girl guide camp from nearly sixty years ago– a canvas tent set on a wooden platform with a stove and wooden bunkbeds inside. We met the rest of the intrepid tour members and we had a delicious meal of chill cooked on the wood stove. First note to writing self– one-pot dinners are best, and make sure everyone has one bowl and one utensil (a spoon). Saves on clean-up. That night the temperature plunged below -30 and we froze, giving me a vivid sense of frozen noses.  I won't even mention the mid-night latrine excursions, on this night or any of the subsequent ones. Some things are too much detail for readers.

The next day, hauling our toboggans, we trekked on snowshoe out to a new campsite at the base of the mountain we were to climb. I learned a lot about ragged breathing, aching thighs, soaring eagles, wolf and deer tracks, long, blinding expanses of frozen lake, and the sheer relief of arriving. I learned about putting up tents, spreading fir boughs as bedding, collecting water and firewood, and pulling together. I learned the closeness that forms among strangers gathered around a wood stove to share food, drink, and laughter at the end of an exhausting day.

That night I learned that you can dry wet mittens and moccasins from strings in the tent, and when you're tired enough, you can fall asleep on the frozen ground with nothing but fir boughs as padding. The next day we climbed a mountain on snowshoes and stood at the top, triumphant, looking south over Lake Huron. By then I had forgotten that this was a research trip, not a journey of self-discovery, and I had to remind myself to ask questions and take pictures. I hadn't even opened my notebook. Flickering candlelight is a poor source of light for these aging eyes anyway.

When I returned to civilization four days later, I had learned a great deal that will find its way into my new book, but I had learned much more about myself. About my limits, my strengths, and my capacity for joy and adventure. That's the cool thing about this writing life. It leads us into places and on adventures that we would never have imagined, and we are the richer for it. I am thinking I will pick some place totally different for my next book.

Costa Rica, perhaps. Or Hawaii. After all, it's such a big, fascinating world out there.


Patricia Filteau said...

Yup, that about captures it. I am still processing the experience as bruises fade to yellow and poetic words step forward to offer ways to capture the sentiments. I do love open water swimming in the Aegean ... in summer.

Sybil Johnson said...

What an adventure. I've never been anyplace where it's that cold. I think I'll stick to sunnier climates.

Anonymous said...

I'm still thinking I might be brave enough to do Iceland Noir in November - maybe I'll be looking to your books and blog postings for travel advice!

Donis Casey said...

You're a better man than I am, Barbara.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Wow! That's all I can think of to say. I agree with Donis