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400 Day LETS Odyssey
Copyright � James Taris

JAMES TARIS around the World- (2003-4)

Me (front centre) and 28 crazy Canadians at The Pinery Camping Grounds.

CANADA - Kitchener (Wk.6 of 16 weeks)
Week 39 of World Tour

Winter Camping

Those crazy Canadians! I mean, who would go camping in the middle of winter? Especially when it’s snowing!

Well, 29 of us did (me included). This was the last weekend of February, and we left for The Pinery Camping Grounds just after Kit finished work on Friday. We weren’t the only crazies there for the weekend. There were about 50 others booked in as well. But we were definitely the largest group.

After a 2 and a half hour drive, we got to the nearest town to The Pinery, which was having a snow sculpture competition. And as we drove through it that night, we came across a massive snow sculpture. It looked like an eagle, a bit taller than me, but made out of brightly coloured snow. And a couple of days later we would see a few more sculptures, including a life-size bus stop bench seat made of snow.

Our group had rented 6 yurts. A yurt is a small cabin, but very much like a tent. It has 4 canvas walls and a pointed canvas roof. But it’s fixed to a wooden floor, and has a built-in heater working 24 hours a day. This weekend we were expecting very cold temperatures (high of only –5 degrees Celsius), and so the heater was going to be worked very hard and much appreciated.

Outside my snow-surrounded yurt.

There were 4 of us who would be sharing our yurt, so we weren’t going to be as cramped as some of the others which had up to 6 people in them. But when we got to the camping grounds (around 9pm), the yurt was empty. We could see a campfire about 50 metres away, with music and singing in the background, but we were hungry, so we decided to cook something first. Cooking is forbidden in the yurts (they even have a smoke alarm fitted inside) so we fried a couple of steaks, with mushrooms and onions, on a butane stove out in the cold and dark. We may have been camping, but that didn’t mean we were going to starve!

After dinner we walked very gingerly along the ice and snow (nearly slipping twice!) until we got to the campfire. Rick and Toshi were playing guitar, and Dan was playing his mandolin, occasionally taking a break and swapping it for a penny whistle. About 20 of us were already there, and the others were either coming later on that night or the following morning.

But all the while I was standing as close as I could to the flames of the campfire. I must’ve looked like a vertical rotisserie, warming up my hands and the front of my legs for about a minute before turning around and warming up the backs of my legs and my quickly freezing butt. Then spinning around again. I’d foolishly thought it would be warm by the campfire, so although I was well rugged up above the waist, my legs were only protected by a pair of jeans, when I should’ve worn some padded ski pants with my long johns underneath. So at midnight, after an hour and a half of warming up one side of me while the other froze again, we headed back to the yurt.

I was up bright and early the next morning. It was before 7am and the camping grounds looked deserted. Some of the others had stayed up until 3am, so they wouldn’t be getting up for a while. As I got out of the yurt, quickly shutting the door behind me and trying not to let the heat out, I saw my first chipmunk. It was scurrying under the wooden deck, stopping occasionally to take a look at his Aussie audience. But he wasn’t the only chipmunk around. Soon he was joined by another one, and during the course of the weekend I would see dozens of them.

The ice crushed cleanly under my feet as I made my way to the large log-structured washroom nearby. And by 7.30am I began to see other campers emerging. By the time I got back, Kit was cooking breakfast out in the snow. A hot mug of tea, with bacon and eggs. ‘Rise Up Singing’ is a songbook which Kit always keeps in the car, and soon we were going through it and singing a swag of songs including one of my favourites, King Of The Road.

Some of the campers wanted to go tobogganing, so we grabbed our toboggan mats and headed off to the toboggan slopes. Unfortunately, once we got there we saw that the snow had mostly melted. So it wouldn’t be possible to go tobogganing. This was only a minor disappointment, because later that afternoon we met one of our group who had gone tobogganing and injured his arm and back. From then on I crossed tobogganing off my list of things to do. I couldn’t afford to risk being a burden to my hosts on my travels.

As a alternative, about a dozen of us walked to the banks of Lake Huron. It was frozen for as far as the eye could see, and walking on its icy edges made me wonder whether this is how the term ‘walking on water’ had come about.

Dan, our mandolin and penny whistler, said, “Let’s make a pyramid”.

Me (bottom row, 2nd from left) still smiling under all that weight.

And he wasn’t talking about a snow structure either. He meant a human pyramid. Those crazy Canadians were getting crazier by the minute! Gee, was I glad I was on the snow bank and could watch their crazy stunt in comfort and safety. Their plan was simple. They’d get 4 big guys on the bottom level, 3 on the next, then 2, then one on the very top. But they only had 3 big guys for the bottom row. That’s when I realized how contagious insanity was, and I soon found myself volunteering to be one of the guys on the bottom row. Now, if I’d given it just a few seconds more thought, I would’ve realized that the guys at each end of that row only have 3 people on their backs while the ones in the middle end up with 5 people on their backs. And guess where they put me. Fortunately we never made it to the top row, but we did get 3 rows high. And even though building the pyramid was a lot of fun, having it collapse was hysterical, with bodies piled like carcasses on top of each other.

Back at the yurt I decided to rehearse my play, The Glory Of Athens, after a 4 week break, and I went through the entire 80 minute performance without a mistake! Wow! It looked like my play was now permanently etched into my memory banks. Now, more than ever, I knew that I wouldn’t have to worry about my upcoming performances in Montreal and Ottawa, or any other place in the future.

Dinner was a little different. We’d brought some corn with us and we barbequed them, leaves and all, in the closed oven outside. We had them with a side dish of potatoes, onions and mushrooms wrapped in aluminium foil, and skinless chicken thighs made up the balance of the meal. After dinner we made our way to join the campfire party once again. They had a leg of venison cooking in a triangular sling above the fire, so they weren’t doing too badly either. Toshi toasted marshmallows between songs, and I even got to taste some of the venison too (yum!). In fact, I thought it was very tender and reminded me very much of the emu meat I’d had last month! We also had some white wine during the night, and finished up with a hot chocolate and Bailey’s. I couldn’t remember the last time I went camping, but I was sure enjoying this camping trip.

Sitting by the campfire with Rick holding guitar.

A curious raccoon came wandering up out of the darkness. He was much larger than I thought raccoons would be. Larger than a cat, and with a very high arched back. But he wasn’t interested in sticking around, and soon vanished in the snowy woods again.

I can’t help it. I’m an early riser and that’s it. So it didn’t surprise me that I was up early again the following morning, at 6.40am, on a Sunday, and walking carefully across the ice and snow to the washrooms. The showers were empty (of course) and I enjoyed a beautiful hot shower which was operated by a sensor which turned on the wonderfully warm water for 60 seconds at a time.

When I emerged, I heard a woodpecker tapping away in a nearby tree. There are many types of woodpeckers in Canada, both big and small, but I’d never seen one before. Luckily this one was very noisy and persistent, so it wasn’t long before I tracked him down. He was just a tiny fella, about the size of a sparrow, with white feathers and black and brown bars across its wing tips. Rick described him as a Downy Woodpecker. Woodpeckers tap at dead tree branches so they can persuade the insects within to come out and be eaten. Either these insects knew about the plan and weren’t co-operating, or there just weren’t any there. So after a few minutes of frantic rat-a-tat-tatting (10 taps per second, about 6-10 taps at a time) my little friend flew off seeking more co-operative prey.

The yurt was empty when I got back, so I went to the campfire to see if they’d already congregated there. Toshi had just lit a fire and was walking around in her boots and pajamas cleaning up a horrible mess. That raccoon was probably casing the joint last night, because he must’ve returned after we’d all gone to sleep and ransacked the campfire site. Raccoons are nocturnal and are known to steal whatever they can, whenever they can. That’s why they’re affectionately known as ‘little bandits’. Some rubbish bags had been ripped apart to get to the food scraps inside, and one of them had found the hot chocolate tin, leaving only the lid and a trail of chocolate powder on the picnic table and the snow beneath.

Having breakfast outside the yurt, in the snow.

We’d also bought some plantain bananas (a popular West Indies fruit) which looked just like large green bananas, but tasted more like sweet potatoes. These were sliced and deep fried, and very tasty! We took some down to the campfire site and shared them with the others. By lunchtime some of our group were ready to leave, so we rounded everyone up to take a group photo. My wedding and portrait photography experience came in handy, and soon we had a mountain of people smiling for the camera. Luckily a neighbouring camper saw our plight as several people got out of the group to take photos with their own cameras, and he volunteered to take a photo with all of us in it. So, 14 shots later (using different cameras), we all disbanded, promising to share our photos with each other via email.

“Now, can one of you take a photo of my family”, our friendly neighbour asked.

“Sure thing!” I said, and took a couple of nice family portraits using his instamatic camera.

A few of us wanted to stick around a little longer, but the yurts had to be vacated by 11am. So we packed our gear into our cars and drove to the hiking grounds. After a short walk through the park, stopping at featured attractions and feeding the chipmunks along the way, we headed off to the local Tim Horton’s restaurant to meet up with Dan and Rod.

Rod was our wheelchair camper. He’d driven to The Pinery in his immaculate baby-blue classic mustang, but wasn’t able to join us for the hike. As we queued to order our coffees and donuts, we noticed Rod speeding out of the washroom and returning from his car soon afterwards holding a screw driver. Minutes later he joined us at our table.

“What’s the screw driver all about?” I asked Rod, as he joined us with a huge smile on his face and waving the tool around so everyone could see.

“Those bloody arseholes”, he said. “They make toilets to accommodate handicapped people and then they have the door opening inwards, which means that we can’t get in. So I just unscrewed the door catch and turned it around so it now opens outwards.”

Good on you, I thought. What a smart guy, and gutsy too.

Rod flashing his nifty screwdriver outside Tim Horton's.

This article is taken from the ebook,
400-Day LETS Odyssey

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