Want to graduate? You have to live in an igloo

By Ellen Brait | October 4, 2012

By sharing this story, I am more than likely fueling the stereotypes that Canadians live in an igloo-filled, barren, snowy wasteland. Just to clarify, my high school was considered strange even in Canada, and this type of trip was by no means normal.

During my junior year of high school, my school required that all students go on a winter camping trip up to Temagami, a cold, snowy, isolated place. Our grade was split into three groups and we each traveled up during different weeks in the winter.

Once we arrived in Temagami, we had to put on all of our layers on the bus before making a five hour long trek across a frozen lake, in snow shoes, of course.

The walk was long and freezing, but there was never any reason to worry about falling through the ice since it was thick enough to support cars driving by. That led me to the question why are we walking?

Once we arrived at Rabbitnose Island, our home for the next few days, we were assigned to our cabins and had a well deserved night’s sleep. The next morning we learned how to build quinzees. A quinzee is essentially an igloo, but much simpler to build. You pile snow up to the ideal size, leave it to freeze overnight, and then burrow your way into the pile and hollow it out the next day.

After spending a day or two on the island learning basic skills, we set out in smaller groups for our overnight trips. This meant living out on the frozen lake for a night or two and sleeping in quinzees.

Overall, the experience was not as horrible as it sounds, and this is coming from someone who takes no pleasure in camping. We fashioned ourselves chairs around the fire out of snow and built up our quinzees. The day was fine as we frolicked on the lake and generally acted like immature teens. It was at night when things started to go wrong.

In order to get water for cooking, our guide cut a small hole in the ice far away from our camp. A few of us were sent to get water for cooking dinner the first night. Everything seemed to be going fine, until suddenly, my friend Derrin let out a yell of surprise. The ice around the water hole had cracked and she had sunk through up to her knees.

Now, when we think of situations like this, we like to flatter ourselves and think that we’ll go to the aid of our friend in danger. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case. Upon seeing what had happened, the majority of our group took off running away from where Derrin had fallen. Thankfully she managed to pull herself out and only had to deal with her feet being soaked for the night, not a fun experience in freezing weather conditions. It was surprising to me that a high school such as mine, who seem overly concerned with the welfare of their students, allowed us to take such a trip, where falling through the ice was a legitimate concern at one point.

The night was by far the worst part of the trip. After dinner, we all crawled into the quinzees we had built, and pushed some backpacks up against the entrances to keep some warmth contained. Right before bed, our student leader made it clear that there were to be no bathroom trips during the night, because opening up the quinzee at night would lead to us being even colder, which I did not think possible at the time.

Just so you can somewhat grasp how cold it was, the night we stayed out it was around -20 degrees Celsius or -4 degrees Fahrenheit. I had to sleep with my contact case inside my shirt so that the liquid would not freeze overnight.

Just as I had drifted off after hours of trying to block out the cold, I was woken up by our student leader. She looked embarrassed and explained that she had to go to the bathroom. With that, we opened the entrance to our quinzee and darted up the hill near the edge of the lake, in only our long underwear (apparently it’s warmer to sleep with less layers, which I still find hard to believe).

The combination of snow, ice, and an uphill walk led to me falling not once, but twice. After returning to the quinzee cold and wet, sleep was hard to come by that night. The following night we returned to the island because temperatures dropped to the point where it would have been dangerous to remain outside overnight. The day after, we made the long trek back to the edge of the lake where a bus full of our classmates was waiting so they could start their walk to the island.

With sneers on our faces we wished them a happy journey. We shared our horror stories, and told them what horrible things they would face before we boarded the bus and headed home.

Looking back on the trip, as much as I dreaded going camping in the winter, it does make for an interesting life experience. I guess my high school had it right after all. If you graduate from there, no one can say that you haven’t been exposed to some interesting things.

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