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Mew Lake Winter Camping

Sleep in a tent during an extreme cold weather alert? Why not?! My friend Cheryl and I had agreed that we wouldn’t camp if a snowstorm was in the forecast, but hadn’t discussed the temperature at which proceeding with our trip bordered on the ridiculous. Despite the forecasted high of -17 degrees Celsius for our day of departure (-29 with wind chill), we headed north for Mew Lake at Algonquin Provincial Park. We paid for a camping permit at the West Gate (km 0), and learned there were “a few people” car camping at Mew Lake (km 30) already, the only campground open for winter camping.

We grabbed wood and kindling from the wood shed on our way in, dropping money in a little metal honour-system payment box. We chose a campsite near vault (no flush) toilets. There were a couple of other tents set up – we weren’t the only crazy ones! The comfort station (the warmest place around) was about 650m away, was heated, had flush toilets, warm running water, a shower, and a laundry room with washers, dryers and a laundry tub. Next to it was a skating rink with hockey nets, sticks and pucks and a campfire nearby. We didn’t see anyone use the rink, but they did flood it regularly and it seemed to be in good shape.

We saw a very cute pine marten close to our site. We set up Cheryl’s winter tent, and put our sleeping pads, sleeping bags, pillows, and blankets in as well.

Did I mention it was cold? Putting up a tent while wearing big mittens is hard! My hands were too cold for fleece gloves, but I had to keep removing my mittens and expose my flesh to snap things together. It was also challenging putting the tent pegs in, but we managed (at least one attached to a rope and pegged down away from the tent). We buried a 10L water bottle in a snowbank, because Cheryl had read that snow would insulate the water and keep it liquid. We put another bottle in the van, and one in the laundry room. Any thoughts on what happened?

Our feet got pretty cold on Friday when we weren’t moving around. Over the weekend I changed my socks frequently (when they felt damp) and occasionally used foot warmers. I once tried to wear 2 pairs of socks, but it took about 5 minutes per boot to get my foot in them (and by that time, I was sweating buckets on top!).

We went for a walk along the Old Railway Multi-Use Trail, which runs from Cache Lake to Rock Lake. We attempted to feed Gray Jays from our hands, but they weren’t biting, so we threw seed down onto the ground and two birds ate it.

Cheryl chopped wood into smaller pieces (even the kindling). We built our campfire and discovered that not only was there snow on the wood, but some of it was frozen together and other pieces had thick ice chunks on it. Not exactly ideal for building a fire! We eventually got a good fire going, and heated our dinner. We boiled water to put in Nalgene bottles to have in our sleeping bags overnight. It was dark by this time, and with a clear sky, the stars were beautiful.

We gathered our dirty dishes, washing tub, dish soap and cloth, and walked to the laundry room to fill our tub with warm water. You’re not supposed to do dishes in the sink, and in summer I would never do dishes there (food could clog the drain), but we used our tub and dumped the “grey” water in the toilet next door. Those few minutes in the laundry room allowed us to warm up!

To keep our cameras, GPS’s, and batteries warm (and my contact lenses safe in their cases), we put them in bags and slept with them in our sleeping bags! Ever cuddle a camera before? I put the liners of my boots in a cloth bag in my sleeping bag so that they wouldn’t get frosty! When we got into the tent and finally into our sleeping bags with all our stuff (including our hot water bottles!), I was warm at first. Despite wearing multiple layers of clothes (it’s a wonder I fit in the bag), it wasn’t long before I was cold. From the waist down I was warm, but my upper body was cold. Not so cold that I was shivering, but I wasn’t comfortable, and I was having trouble falling asleep. I felt like I didn’t sleep at all Friday night, but in the morning Cheryl said that she had heard a really loud noise in the night (maybe ice cracking?) and asked me if I heard it – I didn’t respond, so I must have been asleep!

The next morning, we could hear snow falling gently on the tent. I lay in my sleeping bag listening to birds singing. My boots were frosty in the tent, but not the liners I had slept with! There were a few cm’s of freshly fallen snow, making the trees very pretty. According to the van, the temperature was a balmy -13, and later, -8. Things were looking up!

It was amazing how fast our 2L Nalgene bottles full of Gatorade started to freeze. By the time breakfast was done, I was drinking slushy liquid.

We tried to use an MSR Dragonfly stove, but it wouldn’t work. The white gas was still liquid but for some reason we couldn’t get it into the pump, and therefore we couldn’t cook with it. We just cooked over the campfire instead.

While standing and drinking a cup of hot tea, something flew at my head and landed – I yelled “Ah!” or something like that and proceeded to shake tea all over my coat! I realized when it flew away that it was just a Chicadee!

We checked the water jug in the van and it was frozen, but the water in the snow bank was still liquid!

On Saturday we went snowshoeing along the Track and Tower and Highland Trails. We encountered some Chicadees who were happy to eat sunflower seeds from our hands. The Highland Trail was meandering and beautiful.

On Sunday we packed everything up, left Mew Lake and headed for the Mizzy Lake trail (km 15), where we used our snowshoes again. The trail was another beautiful one. We followed boot prints for a while, but eventually we were walking in newly fallen snow.

My first experience winter camping taught me 5 ways to warm up in frigid temperatures: 1. wear 2 thick pairs of socks and attempt to squeeze feet into boots, 2. snowshoe up a steep hill, 3. attempt to squish a snowy tent into its factory issued bag, 4. drive long enough for the van engine to warm up, and 5. go to the comfort station!

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Kyra Paterson

Kyra of Waterdown, Ontario spends her free time swimming, biking, running, competing in triathlons and running races, planning her next backcountry adventure and hanging out with her family.

2 Comments

  • Peter Rumble says:

    Great description. Made me think of my winter camping experiences. Frozen water and Bailey’s the worst. Coyotes running across frozen lake in full moon light the best.

  • Sarah says:

    Looks amazing ladies! Four girlfriends and I just returned from Mew earlier this week. Our conditions were a bit different….warmer and tons of ice! We did not tent camp. We stayed in a yurt which was very comfortable. Hoping to winter tent camp some time in the future. It is surely a wonderful place being in Algonquin Park!

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