Winter camping in Strathcona Provincial Park.
Like many Vancouver Island folk, I’ve made plenty of happy memories in Strathcona Provincial Park. In the summer it has offered me many weekends of trekking into the wilderness—just me, my backpack, and my thirst to get to know my backyard.
I used to stow my gear away after each season, right around the time when days of rain start to outnumber days of sun, but a few years ago, I decided to take on a new challenge: winter camping. After all, winters on Vancouver Island are known to be mild. “It’s a wet cold,” as we locals say. (Sleeping on a blanket of snow quickly taught me how literal that expression can be.)
Sounds fun, right? The thing is, I love being uncomfortable. Some call it “Type 2 Fun,” awful at the time but awesome after it’s over.
Somehow, I convinced my brother-in-law, Matt, to join me. One weekend in late winter, when the weather was starting to warm but the cold still held on firmly to the nights, we trudged our way up Forbidden Plateau with our backpacks loaded with overnight gear.
We headed up the old ski hill, making speedy progress over hard-packed snow towards Mount Becher, with Matt’s dog, Luki, following at the heels of our snowshoes. We set up camp on a plateau just below the summit—protected from a slight breeze that cooled us as we watched the sun drop towards the Comox Glacier.
My brother-in-law is outdoorsy, but winter camping was new to him, too. I had doubts about the hammock setup he’d spent months researching, but I figured Mount Becher was the perfect spot to try it out. It was only one night, after all. I set up my tent and sleeping pad as Matt hung his hammock. Then we warmed ourselves with a cup of wine and some hot soup.
The sun set. As I turned my headlamp off and crawled into my sleeping bag, I let out a sigh of contentment. “This isn’t too bad,” I thought to myself. Luki curled up beside me and soon we were both breathing peacefully.
That didn’t last long.
Throughout the night, I woke up many times to find myself sinking deeper into a hole in the snow. Luki’s fur got progressively wetter and my down sleeping bag ever more saturated. Eventually, admitting defeat, I dragged 90 pounds of soggy dog toward me and we spooned until the morning, sharing whatever body heat was left and pretending to sleep.
When the sun threatened the horizon, my tired, puffy eyes opened to find myself and Luki in a puddle of water created from our body heat. I thought of Matt in his hammock. Maybe he’d had the right idea after all.
I forced my achy body from the damp sleeping bag and made a cup of tea before Luki and I snuck by a still-sleeping Matt and headed to the summit for sunrise. My body temperature rose as the sky lit up, as if to congratulate us on our first winter camping experience. It was easy to forget about the sleepless night.
Although it was a wet night for Luki and me, the snow had insulated us to some degree. My brother-in-law learned that Bear Grylls’ advice that “two layers on the bottom is worth one on top” was all too true. After fighting the chilly breeze that surrounded him all night, Matt decided that perhaps the hammock was better left for summer backpacking trips.
We debriefed as we slogged back home, descending faster than we’d climbed the previous day. Memories of the damp, sleepless night receded with each step, and we made plans for the next trip.
A few weeks later, we found ourselves trekking into Bedwell Lake.
This time my sister, Morgan, joined the adventure, lured by our stories of mountaintop sunrises. I lent her my expedition-style down jacket and hoped her small frame would stay warm enough.
Fresh snow blanketed the hills of Strathcona, but we were better prepared this time, with closed-cell foam pads for underneath our sleeping pads (and the dog), a four-season tent, and extra warm layers. We set up camp on one of the lakeside wood platforms, now hidden beneath the snow.
Heavy flakes fell all night, and I woke to a deafening quiet, or perhaps that was just because I was buried deep in my down sleeping bag. My hands made it out of my warm cocoon, and I felt around for a puddle, but I was pleasantly surprised to find we were mostly dry.
A foot of fresh snow greeted us as we opened the fly. The cloud cover hid any chance of a sunrise, so we started breaking camp. My sister remained bundled in my down jacket as she heated water for oatmeal.
We made our way to the edge of the lake, and I saw the look of awe in her eyes as the mountains revealed themselves for a brief moment before covering up again.
The sun pushed through the cloud layer and the snow started to melt. Our gear was heavy and wet, and we left Bedwell Lake feeling tired, but proud of our night nestled in Strathcona’s coastal winter conditions.
I’m pretty sure Luki will be quick to be at my side for the next winter camping adventure. My sister, on the other hand, maybe not. Still, despite the wet cold, we all found joy in the mountains.