It turned out to be the coldest night of 1962. The temperature went down to -33 F. The seven of us had been trudging for hours through deep, crisp, unblemished snow on our way into Gill's Cabin, a small log cottage overlooking a set of rapids on the Whitemouth River in Sandilands Provincial Forest.
The cottage belonged to our Fort Garry Boy Scout troop. The trek was about 10 miles off the highway from where our scoutmaster had parked his truck. It seemed so much longer. The snow was really deep that year and the going was exhausting. We ran out of light long before we reached the cabin.
The army surplus store in Westbourne had supplied us with old, down-filled sleeping bags and knapsacks of a heavy khaki canvas. I had found a beautiful pair of well-varnished, classically crafted Huron-style snowshoes. They glowed a beautiful amber colour in the evening light. The wood was bent into a wonderfully proportioned teardrop curve and the rawhide was new and taut, ready to carry me over the glistening drifts. One of the lads had a lovely pair of the long and elegant Ojibwa-style snowshoes with pointed toes, great for moving through heavy bush. Another had brought a pair of bearpaws.
We were ready for winter camping and really thought we were all prepared; after all, wasn't that the Boy Scout motto?
With the loss of light, our scoutmaster decided we had better make camp. We had some stew bubbling on the fire in no time and I remember thinking it was the best food I ever ate. We set up a lean-to using pine poles we cut from the surrounding forest. Over this we stretched a tarp, meant to deflect the heat from the fire down on us as we huddled in our sleeping bags on a springy, spruce-bough mattress. One of us, Biffy (because his name was John), undressed in the open air and tried to put on his dad's one-piece set of long underwear, the kind with the trap door. After several unsuccessful attempts (head through the trap door, feet through the armholes), he finally gave up and dove naked into his bag in frustration, freezing cold. It was entertaining.
The deep woods are a marvel at night. It was so cold, you could hear the wood of the trees snapping and cracking. The stars looked so close you felt you could each up and pluck them from the sky. The quiet was enchanting, until a pack of coyotes started howling in the distance, but not so far that we didn't feel a bit threatened by the eerie, haunting sound. We were happy to have the fire blazing before us. After some frightening stories of the Wendigo, the cannibal spirit of the north woods, we settled into sleep, cosy like I had never been. My body was wrapped in the enveloping warmth of the down mummy-bag while my face was nipped by Jack Frost.
Morning came early; we were awake before dawn. Getting out of those snug cocoons in which we had swathed ourselves was a real chore, but we were raring to go. Campfire coffee was brewed on a rekindled fire, the can spun in a circle over our heads to settle the grounds. Bacon sizzled, eggs fried and toast toasted. Butter melted and raspberry jam dripped. It was heaven.
We got started again, with Biffy breaking trail. Unfortunately, his bearpaws were too small for real snow, and another scout, whose larger snowshoes gave him plenty of lift, soon replaced him. After that, we took turns. Being first was hard work, but there were rewards; the snow in front of you was untouched, sparkling, rippled where the wind had touched it -- magical.
We got to Gill's Cabin before noon, set up camp and had lunch. The afternoon was spent exploring. The river was still open at the rapids -- there is nothing prettier than the contrast between sparkling, crystalline snow and moody, blue-black, flowing water. The undisturbed calm of the jack-pine forest was blissful. The gurgling of the river, the odd chirp of a chickadee or nuthatch, the wing-flutter of a friendly whiskey-jack, the chattering of a brash, irritated squirrel and the whisper of gentle gusts through the jack pines were the only sounds to break the stillness.
Back at the cabin, a turkey dinner was in the wood stove. The smell of the roasting bird greeted us when we returned from our explorations. What a way to end a magnificent and blessed day! The meal was superb. Sleep in the overheated cabin came quickly. I don't think any of us lasted past 9 p.m.
The next afternoon, while planning our return trek (which was going to be easier because we had already packed the trail on the way in), we heard a low hum in distance, which soon became a roar as three snowmobiles thundered into camp.
The machines snarled around the cabin, churning snow into clouds of sparkling diamonds, the sound resonating through the forest like the shriek of a Wendigo heralding a death. I remember being shocked -- the stillness was shattered, our peaceful Eden was turned into an inferno of uproar. When they finally shut down, we gawked at these noisy monsters, these nature-changers.
Several of our parents had arrived to surprise us and take us out. They had followed our track to the cabin and were going to ferry us out in shifts.
The snowmobiles fascinated me. I had never seen one up close. There was a bright yellow Skidoo, a glossy blue Snow Cruiser, and the oddest-looking machine I have ever seen, then or since, a red Bolens.
We all now know what a Skidoo looks like. The Bolens, however, was backwards. It had this huge engine mounted over a gib-churning tack in front of a massive U-shaped handlebar, which you held onto for steering. You sat on a small narrow bench behind the handlebar and were towed, actually dragged along by the track. We were spellbound by these machines. After all, we were 12-year-old boys.
The rest of the day is a blur. I remember we all went for rides. What a thrill it was. I was on the back of the Bolens churning through the snow at speeds I couldn't have imagined the day before. My ears were ringing, my heart was pounding, the snow thrown into my face -- it was wild, exhilarating fun.
Late in the day we packed up, and the machines started to transport us out. I started to walk down the now-hard-packed trail while I waited my turn to be picked up. The trail, which had been created with so much hard work, had been wiped out in an instant by the churning tracks of these deafening, exciting ogres.
Our hard-fought achievement of two days before turned to insignificance today. I recall within an hour we were all back at the trucks, our blissful weekend ended by the howl of the machine -- my sense of wilderness shattered, destroyed, ended.
That was 50 years ago. I now live out by Birds Hill Park. I moved here to get away from the clamour of the city.
At midnight, I go out to feed the horses and give the dogs a last chance to relieve themselves. My home is three-quarters of a mile from the snowmobile trail running along Highway 206. Most winter nights, when the frigid air is so crisp it burns in your nostrils and you can almost reach up and touch the stars, all I can hear is the scream, the howl, the shriek, the wail of the snowmobiles racing down the trail and I mourn the passing of the wilderness, the peace that once was, in the dead of a Manitoba winter.
TOMORROW: THE ICE JUMPERS