I'm going to need a bigger bucket
I’ve never really put thought into a ‘bucket list.’ The whole idea seems kind of morbid to me. But if I had a bucket list, then Iceland, Canada and seeing the Northern lights would have been on the very top of it.
As our list of products to test started to grow it became clear that our next mission, as Columbia’s Directors of Toughness, was going to be cold. When arctic-ready equipment starts getting delivered to the office it doesn’t take long to start narrowing down the possible locations. I mean, new Bugaboots, coats designed specifically for the Iditarod, and sleeping bags rated down to -60 degrees, it was clear we weren’t heading for a spa in the Bahamas.
In fact, once again, we were heading North. This time to Canada’s Yukon Territory. I had high expectations of Canada. It is somewhere I have always wanted to visit.
We flew into Whitehorse, the capitol of the Yukon Territory, where we learned that our mission was simply going to be to survive. It seemed pretty straightforward. To survive three days in below freezing conditions wasn’t going to be a problem, right?
The next morning however things got slightly more real.
We met up with Mark from Up North Adventures, who had been asked by Columbia Sportswear to give us some tips on surviving the Canadian wilderness. Given that there are only around 6 hours of sunlight a day in the Yukon at this time of year, the training process was rather more hurried than I had hoped.
With our gear packed up, expedition style we were delivered to a small airfield in Whitehorse. We loaded onto a plane which I couldn’t help but notice had skis where the wheels should have been.
Where the hell are we going that our plane needed skis on it?
We left the airfield and headed up and over the mountains. I wasn’t wrong in my expectations of this part of Canada. As we flew between the mountains to our next destination, there was nothing but trees and frozen lakes beneath us. Soon enough we were losing altitude.
here was a clearing ahead, at first I couldn’t understand why this area was free from trees. There were trees all around and mountains on either side so why was this area clear. I quickly glanced at the map we had been given and it hit me.
This was no clearing; this was a lake.
Or at least it was supposed to be. It had frozen over. We were about to land on a frozen lake. I’m sure you can imagine what was going through my mind. Well I hope you can because words can’t explain what was going through my head as we descended toward the lake.
Thankfully after a few moments, we were on the ground. We were next told that myself and Faith Briggs, my fellow Director of Toughness, would have to make our way towards another frozen lake, marked on our map. That if we wanted a ride out of this wilderness paradise, we needed to be there in three days’ time without fail.
We strapped on our snow shoes and started on our way as the plane disappeared into the distance performing a flyby. I swear I could see the pilot laughing as he flew off.
It was getting dark and we hadn’t made shelter for the night. With the temperature dropping drastically, now at about -30 degrees this had to be our priority. We set about building a Quinsy. A snow cave we’d had about a 4-minute lesson on constructing, previously.
I was starting to get a little concerned about our camera crew. They had been busy filming us and weren’t building any protection for themselves. As if they had read my mind, they packed up their gear and explained that they would not be staying with us.
To my surprise, they weren’t joking.
They hoped on snow mobiles and left with the promise that they’d see us at some point to film some more. At some point? What did that even mean?
We really were all alone.
We could do nothing else but settle in for the night. It was getting cold now so I was glad for the seriously heavy duty gear that Columbia had provided us with as well as the snow cave that Faith and I had managed to build just in time.
Our shelter was a pile of snow, left to harden and then hollowed out from the inside, building upwards to trap the hot air inside and keep it warm. It was about two feet tall, five feet wide and about six feet in length. Imagine being stuck in a closet on its side, a cold closet covered in ice resting on a frozen lake that was moving and grumbling beneath you.
Got that picture? Good.
I woke in the middle of the night and climbed out of our shelter for a look around. The sky was clear and there were more stars that I have ever seen glistening above me. As I drew breath, behind the mountains on my right I noticed a green glow.
As I watched more intently, the lights were dancing across the sky.
Soon the green was joined by intermittent purple light; the light show was in full effect. I laid in the snow for over an hour and just stared into the sky in complete awe. In Iceland I had chased the lights, checked the forecast every day.
Now in the Yukon Territory, standing in the middle of nowhere, just me and Faith, completely alone, I had accidentally stumbled upon a scene I will never ever forget.
My dreams brought to life.
Well…either that or I had died in the snow cave. I took some photos just to be sure.
Shortly after I slipped back into my sleeping bag the weather had changed dramatically. As Faith and I woke and tentatively poked our heads out of our frosty shelter it seemed as though we were on another planet.
Freezing fog had set in and gripped everything in its path.
Of course, there was still snow on the ground but now there was ice covering absolutely everything. Trees, plants, our bags, sleds, sleeping bags, everything! Both inside and outside the quinsy everything was now coated in ice. It was now closer to -40 degrees, we quickly packed up our gear and set off.
Faith and I knew that despite the bad weather we absolutely must make progress or we’d never make our extraction point. We struggled through the fog alone, occasionally met by one of the camera men, who acted as if we’d never met. Just filmed sometimes smirked and then left again.
We were drinking warm water from thermos flasks, that we heated before embarking toward our destination, and crunching frozen chocolate bars just to keep moving. After what seemed like an eternity and quickly closing in on another night, we managed to pass through the mountains.
By this time the fog was so thick we couldn’t see much to determine our path.
Reluctantly, we decided to descend a little further into the forest and seek some shelter from the trees. Faith and I used the forests natural protection to build a lean-to shelter and agreed to reevaluate at first light. With the fire going and some much needed warm food inside us, it wasn’t long before I was asleep.
Faith worked tirelessly for the next few hours to keep the fire going for me as I slept before it was my turn to take over fire duties.
Before long the fog had passed and the morning came. To my relief, at first light, down the hill and through the trees, I could see the lake that we needed to reach later that day.
After boiling some more water for our flasks and packing up for what we hoped would be the last time we set off towards the lake. It can only have been a couple of miles but it took us a few hours. Battling freezing temperatures through knee high snow we eventually reached the lake. As we stepped out onto the lake there was almost instant relief felt all round.
We weren’t finished quite yet though.
I remembered a brief conversation during our training where Mark (our survival expert) had said that the lake was 12 miles long. We turned and headed towards the edge of the lake to complete the grueling journey. A few steps more and in the distance we spotted a sight that I will never forget.
Two sleds pulled by dogs speeding towards us.
As they grew closer it became clear that our survival expert, Mark, was in fact controlling of one of the sleds. This was why we had to be at the lake on time.
This was our way out.
We packed up our gear and hopped on the sleds and rode off with as the sun set in the distance behind us like the final scene of a movie.
I had always hoped I’d be sent to Canada as Columbia Sportswear’s Director of Toughness but never had I considered the circumstances in which it might happen. Being lost in the wilderness is daunting. Just staying alive is a full-time job. You permanently need water, warmth and shelter. It was definitely a struggle, nothing I’ve ever experienced drains moral like these extreme conditions. But that only served to generate an even more unforgettable experience.