Family day weekend boasted record low temperatures in Ontario. I decided to go camping at Mew Lake in Algonquin Park, in a summer tent, and at -42, it was a rough but surprisingly fun weekend. There were many circumstances that brought me to the Winter in the Wild Festival in Algonquin Park, as I was expected at Macgregor Point Provincial Park. Unfortunately, neither of my camping partners could make the trip, leaving me with two options, go alone to MacGregor or find a site at Mew and visit with everyone I’d met on New Years Eve and experience this amazing Winter in the Wild Festival they kept bragging to me about. Sadly, all the non reservable sites were already booked, but a friend I’d met on New Years, Chris, with his daughter Victoria, invited me to take up residency on their site. I was a bit hesitant there wouldn’t be room for both my tipi and tent, but I agreed anyways and was happy not to brave this particularly cold weekend alone.
The fun began for me before I even arrived at the park. The day before advertised highway closures due to white outs and black ice, mostly on highway 11. Instead of my usual 5 am departure, I decided Friday night that I would leave after 6am. Being alone on the highway was my favourite thing… but not when I’d be the one breaking trail at -45 without a soul around. I figured I’d rather have a bit of company on the road with me in case something happened, and that something happened all around me Saturday morning.
Just outside of Toronto, I was happily driving along the 400 highway, ecstatic at the time. The road conditions on my app showed me that the highway was snow covered and icy for the most part, from Niagara to Toronto, and I’d just driven through that and didn’t experience the slightest issue. But the problems were waiting for me in Bradford West Gwillimbury. I hit patches of black ice continuously and it scared me to death. I’d never driven on black ice like this and I felt like I was operating a hovercraft with absolutely no control. In addition, my car is manual transmission and was definitely not shifting normally,( I’m assuming due to the frigid cold temps.)
During that stretch of highway I saw a total of 6 accidents and watched a jeep slide across the two lanes in front of me and flip over upside down into the ditch. Screaming at the top of my lungs I could do nothing but continue forwards. I dared not touch my brakes or do anything that would cause me to follow suit. I trembled the entire way to the park, without issue, thankfully, but damn was I scared!!!! I saw people pull over to assist the jeep and prayed for them. After I returned home I tried to find some information online but didn’t turn up anything. I’m hoping that means everyone was okay. For obvious reasons, I have no pictures from this portion of my trip.
When I saw the West Gate, it was one of the happiest moments of my life. Highway 60 was clean and clear and when I arrived at my site at Mew #45, I was delighted and practically kissed the ground when I got out of my car. At the same time, my face almost fell off from the bone chilling cold, but that was secondary in my mind and I left it there.
I was greeted by Chris, Victoria and their dogs. Chris graciously moved his cook tent over so I could fit all my stuff on the site and I got to work setting up my summer tent and tipi. I was amazed that it was so cold but I wasn’t dying at all?? I was properly dressed and except for my face being extremely cold and my hair freezing from my breath, I was perfectly fine. SWEET!
The first issue I experienced was plastic breaking upon the slightest touch. I have 2 bins I used for camping regularly, one is my kitchen bin which holds all my utensils, spices, plates, foil, etc, the other I put my food in for this trip as I knew I may not have my car nearby and I had too much to fit into my small bear barrel, which is what I normally use. Both lids of both bins broke with the slightest pressure. DAMN! That sucked. I also lost an extension cord over the weekend, two of the three prongs snapping off and the actual cord cracking in several places. Sorry dad 🙁
After getting everything set up it was time to get some heat into my tent. I brought a brand new heater and set it up on an upside down foil container (big mistake… stay tuned…) and I got the extension cord plugged in, but no power. Then I had power but chris didn’t, then I didn’t, then neither of us did, etc etc. (somewhere in this mess my cord broke and cracked as above). This went on for quite some time and I was starting to get freaked out. I needed heat but in the meantime, set up my wood stove in the tipi and got a fire going in there, using my new HOMEMADE FIRESTARTERS (post to follow), and the tipi actually got very warm inside. Chris talked to the park ranger and they sent some hydro people to our site and after a few hours, everything was worked out. Thank goodness. The heater was on and warming up my tent and I hoped it would be nice and toasty by bedtime. HAHA!
After setup some of my favourite campers came for a visit including Marian, Terry, Paula, Jack and a new friend cold tenting also, Amy. We all had a sit in my tipi with the stove warming us and had a drink and chatted about the days events. At the moment, it was 3pm and demo day was going on at Mew Lake where people could come and check out certain hot tents and have a tour of them and pick the owners brains for info. A few people came to check out my tipi and I was honoured they were interested in it. Shortly after, I went to check out everyone else’s set up and greet my follow campers which was a great time. You can check out the other tents in my last post by clicking here.
When I came back from my visit around the park, I took my phone out to take a photo of our little village. As we arrived on the site Victoria spotted the village fox hanging out behind Chris’ cook tent and I was lucky enough to get a few pictures before the cold shot down my phone.
I brought a pre cooked dinner, pork roast with carrots, gravy and rotini. I had made this my last 2 trips and it was delicious and very warm on a cold day and thought it’d be perfect again, and it was. We sat in Chris’ hot tent and enjoyed the meal and afterwards got bundled up and headed to the wolf howl. We actually interrupted it and I want to take a moment to apologize to all the other participants for ruining this event for you. I had no idea what was involved and that no talking was allowed etc. I’d never done a wolf howl and when we went to meet everyone, Harvey advised us they’d just left and to catch up, so we did. Seems they did have a successful wolf howl regardless and did receive a response so I was happy we at least, couldn’t take that away. I was so cold standing silently waiting for the response to the experts calls that my entire body was violently shaking. Standing out in the middle of the airfield at -42 not moving.. BAD IDEA! Just fyi!
After the wolf howl we headed to the warming tent to visit with everyone and share camping stories. The park set up a lovely hot tent beside the skating rink for people to go in and warm up from the wood stove or via the camp fire outside. I visited with everyone until 11:00 o’clock or so and then we all decided it was time for some shut eye. I was honestly terrified about sleeping in the cold but off I went.
When I got to my tent I checked the thermometer outside, -39, no wind chill. OMG ! I was going to die!!! I went into the tent and it was not really warm but definitely not as cold as outside. I guess that was good right? I removed my snow pants and jacket putting them under my top blanket to keep them warm and dry and climbed into bed doing my best to sleep and eventually after adding earplugs, made it there…. until….. I woke up by form of trembling on a flat airbed!!!
It was freezing cold in my tent and somehow my bed was flat? WTH? I got up and went over to my clothes bag to add a layer. I then grabbed the cord and plugged it in to inflate my bed, making a very loud hair dryer sound as I did so, but it had to be done. At the time, I thought it was just low due to the extreme cold! HAHAH. Cool, all set. I turned around and then noticed, my heater was off!!! It was about 345am so over 4 hours since I’d gone to bed? I had no idea how long the heat had been off but by the feel of the temperature, I would say about -30 degrees long! 🙁 This ain’t no hot tent!!! I might have heard it shut off but with the earplugs in, I was totally oblivious.
I immediately thought back to earlier and how the breaker kept tripping and was freaking out. I tried to stay calm, but knew within a matter of minutes I needed to devise a plan. I had no gloves on, not a tonne of clothes on, it was at least -25 to -30 in my tent, maybe colder and I had no heat. I turned the power bar on and off, unplugged the heater and replugged it in a few times, turned the heater on and off…. OMG hands were getting numb…. how do I even attempt to sneak into Chris and Victoria’s hot tent, bringing this huge cot bed to sleep on in there with 2 dogs???… shit shit SHIT!!!. I picked up the heater in a last attempt and WHIRRRRRRR it started running. WHAT?? WHOA!! WOHOOOO!!!!!!!! There was a shut off switch on the bottom of the heater, for when it falls over, I guess, to keep fires from starting?? The foil container the heater was on, literally dented itself and turned the heater off by doing so??? FOR REAL????? Check out the photo above. I was amazed!! I could see the headlines now… FOIL BROWNIE PAN RESPONSIBLE FOR CAMPERS HYPOTHERMIA!
I got back into my now flat again airbed, (I guess that issue wasn’t going to be solved today), aimed the heater towards my head on the side table and laid there shivering hoping to get warm soon. Eventually I fell back asleep but was very uncomfortable all night laying on a cot airbed with no air and being cold, but I was extremely grateful that I had my heater and it was working and I didn’t have to try and relocate myself at four the morning! I was also grateful I bought a -20 liner from Columbia the day before the trip “just in case” as it with my -9 Marmot bag, helped me out a lot.
I woke up around 1030am, still cold but nothing but my toes were numb, so not to bad. I wish I’d brought the thermometer inside with me last night so I could see how cold it actually was in my tent when I’d woken up to no heat but a guesstimate is all I’ll ever have. My nalgene bottle sitting beside the heater was frozen solid upon awakening, so that should give some idea as the the approximate temp. The thermometer that was outside read -30 and the sun was shining! I already felt warmer!!! HAHAHA!
I went back to bed for a bit and then finally got up and got my bathroom bag together, complete with todays change of clothes and headed to the comfort station. Frozen baby wipes, frozen toothpaste, I was definitely seeing a theme here. I did the best I could, changed my clothes feeling better after doing so and then headed to the campsite to make some breakfast. I heated up some ham and cheese omelettes and bacon that I’d pre cooked at home along with some yummy english muffins and a cup of hot chocolate with baileys in it. We all ate in the hot tent and after a few chores, decided to go for a hike along the highland backpacking trail. As this post was growing rapidly, I have decided to post 2 pictures here and put the hike in a separate post being published next week! It’s a short post full of great pics, so please come back and check it out! I think you will enjoy it!
When we got back from hiking it was after 4. I went for a walk around the campground to meet up with some people I’d been wanting to talk to and Chris and Victoria relaxed in their tent. I got back around 6 and at that point decided I never wanted to go back outside again. I was cold and tired of being cold and I needed a break. Thankfully, I was given one and for 3 glorious hours I stayed in the hot tent, replenished my liquids with non frozen water and made a delicious dinner of salmon and roasted potatoes.
Shortly after 9 we all headed to be social and see our friends at the warming tent. There was all types of conversations going on about canoe trips, camping trips and lots of outdoor adventures and it was a great place to meet up with everyone and share experiences. It was a really fun night bonding with fellow nature lovers and I think everyone was a bit leery on heading to their cold tents tonight. We ended up staying there pretty late. Something I would never do camping normally. I personally was scared of my tent and didn’t want to go back there. The warming tent was very warm, I was down to a t shirt and I was quite content staying there forever!!!
Eventually everyone headed to their own sites and it was time to face the music. Chris lent me an extra thermarest they’d brought to put on my cot bed and make up for there not being air in my air mattress. I boiled some water on the stove and put it in my nalgene and put it down in the bottom of my sleeping bag. It was minus 33 tonight, so 6 degrees warmer than the night before but still very very cold.
I had brought the thermometer in and discovered it was a toasty -15 in my tent tonight and I was happy for it!!! So odd but when it’s double that the night before, you feel grateful!!! I got into my warm bed around 4:00 am and was actually nice and cozy in there. The water bottle helped a tonne and I guess because the heater had been on for an entire day now, the tent was much warmer. In fact, when I woke up around 1030am, it was -5 inside my tent. SWEET! I even changed my clothes in it and got ready for the day.
On the day of my departure I almost always pack up my bed when I get up. I figure I’m already in the tent and it just seems easier for me somehow. Normally with airbeds that are inflated.. haha…. I unplug the cap and give them time to deflate themselves. LOL. As I was packing up, having removed the fur blanket, -9 sleeping bag, -20 liner, random canadian tire bag that was under me, the thermarest…. um. yeah, ALL those and underneath was the sheet that goes on top of the airbed. It was covered in frost! I did my best to get a picture but it’s not the easiest to see. I thought this was pretty cool. New years eve my CT bag was damp but that was it. This time it was dry and I had frost. But it was much much MUCH colder this trip!
After packing up my bed, I walked to the comfort station and then went to see how everyone was doing this morning. Everyone seemed well and many were busy already tearing their sites down. I decided I should stop procrastinating and do the same. Kim came back to my site with me to to check out the tipi before I took it down and take a few picture of it! Thanks Kim, I love them!
After Kim went back to tear down her own tent, I got busy packing up my site. It’s funny because I have now set up and tore down the tipi five times (a few at home) and my summer tent… I can’t even count how many times, and yet, in winter, it just takes forever. I have noticed that this happens in the cold weather. The airbed won’t roll right, the tent and tarps don’t fold right, the extension cords are stiff (and crack!)….. Everything has issues and acts differently in the cold. Kim had mentioned to me that her tent poles, having been in her car for weeks, lost the stretch in the elastic inside her poles and she had to warm them in Terry’s hot tent before setting up the tent. I wasn’t even able to get my tent, WITHOUT the fly, into it’s bag, it just wouldn’t fit. In the end, I just rolled it up and put it in the car. One big bonus about being alone was that I didn’t have to pack the car carefully because there was extra room.
Around 2pm I was all packed up and ready to go. I did a lap around the campground saying goodbye to my new and old friends and spent some time chatting about the upcoming Outdoors Show and some random summer plans. When I got back to the site, Harvey the park warden, was driving around handing out the official weather report for the park on the weekend to all the campers as a little souvenir. How thoughtful can you be? What an awesome place this was. Here is the sheet in case anyone didn’t get it and a big thanks to Harvey for being so incredibly amazing!
At 3pm I pulled out of Mew Lake and was really sad to be saying goodbye again and heading home, but I was also extremely anxious to get into a nice hot bath, which I’d vowed I’d stay in for hours on end. Along the 60, there were some magnificent views and I stopped to get a few pictures on a safe part of the highway were I could pull right off the road. FYI: The ice was blue, these pictures are not enhanced.
I don’t know how or when it happened, but somehow, I’d fallen in love with winter camping, -42 or not, it was still camping and I loved it and nothing could stop me from it! I got home, unpacked and spent hours in the tub as promised, reflecting on the amazing weekend full of fantastic people, and looking forward to my next adventures! Stay tuned… there are LOTS more coming including a review of the outdoors show in toronto being posted in a few days and a visit to Silent Lake Provincial park with a camper christina favourite, my mom!
A HUGE thanks again to all of the amazing staff at Ontario Parks who helped make this weekend bearable and a success for all of us involved. We truly appreciate you more than we can say! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
I really hope you enjoyed my post and it inspired you to give winter camping a try, or, in the very least, venture outside for some fun winter activities. If you have any questions, comments or issues, please do not hesitate to contact me. I love hearing from people and sharing their stories as well!
An extra thank you to Marian who designed the cover photo for this post, a sticker she made to hand out to all the -42 campers and to Kim for helping me proof some of my latest posts. Sometimes a second set of eyes is needed when hours upon hours are spent staring at a computer screen and I greatly appreciate the time you took to provide feedback to me!