I couldn’t wait to build my own quinzhee as soon as my older sister told me how she had built one on a day excursion with the Outdoors Club at high school. Until then, I had no idea that a quinzhee was a primitive shelter, constructed by building a big pile of snow, letting it crystalize for a couple of hours, and then hollowing it out like a snow cave. Heck, I hadn’t even heard the word before then.
As soon as the snow conditions were suitable (lots and cold – not warm packing snow), which rarely occurs just north of Toronto, I made a big pile of snow on the front lawn and hollowed it out, creating my very first quinzhee. I was hooked and couldn’t wait to sleep in one.
At the time, I didn’t realize that this innocuous snow shelter would one day almost cause my early death during my final year of high school. The following account comes from my journal, written in my eighteenth year, describing this event.
It was Saturday morning and the weather forecast hadn’t lied – it was cold – well below zero. But, a spectacular sunrise and clear skies promised at least a little warmth from a low winter sun. I was eager to get started on my first winter-camping trip in three years – the last trip a cold, sleepless one-nighter spent in a minimalist shelter I built with a friend. The weather forecast was calling for temperatures down to minus 30 Celsius overnight but I was confident that my dog Toby and I would be comfortable in the quinzhee I planned to construct with the abundance of snow in the region. I was headed two and a half hours north to my favourite lake, where lack of snow and cold temperatures are never an issue.
My father had graciously loaned me his truck for the weekend, so I stuffed it full of camping gear and warm clothes and well before sunup, I was on the road. Arriving at the lake, I was a little shocked at the depth of the snow and the intensity of the penetrating cold. This was going to be a little more difficult than first anticipated, but I was filled with the confidence of youth and had no doubt I was up for the challenge. In fact, it made the excursion that much more of an adventure. How bad could it be, I asked myself? I’ve been challenged before – I’d spent many nights outdoors before this, sometimes in cold snowy conditions, at other times braving the waters of Georgian Bay in a small boat to reach a small island campsite, or during several days camping and paddling across remote rivers and lakes.
I knew the area well, and I planned on snowshoeing three kilometres from the truck to a small valley where a creek drained from a chain of beaver ponds into the main lake. It’s a pretty spot, with a one-hundred foot high cliff on the east side of the creek and rolling hills of thick forest and granite outcrops on the west side. Conifers shelter the mouth of the creek, firewood is plentiful and fishing is reliable just offshore.
Before leaving the truck to snowshoe the three kilometres to the spot I had in mind, I decided to check over my gear one more time. Here’s a list of the primary equipment and food I brought with me;
- Toby (my Golden Retriever) and dog food
- Plastic sled
- 0°C synthetic sleeping bag
- Synthetic insulated blanket (fancy name for a cheap bed comforter)
- Plastic rain poncho to use as a ground sheet
- Snowshoes – modified bear paw, wood and rawhide
- Recurve bow with eight arrows
- Belt knife
- Small hatchet
- Flint and steel with char-cloth tinder
- Ice fishing rod and a few jigs
- 2 Candles for heating the quinzhee
- Cast iron frying pan, enamel plate, cup and bowl
- Beef jerky
- Cooking oil
- Boil-in-a-bag lasagne
If the list seems short and lacking in essentials to you, you’re right. My habit at the time was to attempt to live off the land as much as possible. I planned on catching fish and shooting small game for food, and I assumed my shelter would keep me warm and dry. Boy, was I wrong on both accounts.
I also thought my clothing was suitable for the adventure – cotton long underwear, blue jeans, a cotton t-shirt, a wool sweater, insulated cotton work coveralls, nylon socks with grey work socks over top, Sorel Snowcat boots, an acrylic toque and nylon snowmobile gloves. Wrong again.