The crack of the 12-gauge shotgun echoed through the frozen spruce. It was -42 degrees Celsius when I fired at the snowshoe hare. I missed, and I was hungry. Neither I nor Charlie, the Cree elder I was travelling with through northern Quebec, had eaten yet that day. So I went to run after the rabbit, hoping to get in another shot. Charlie grabbed my shoulder, stopped me from bolting blindly through a thick stand of alder and calmly suggested we stop for a boil up—strong tea made over a hot fire.
The problem with Charlie’s request was the amount of work involved in making tea in the frozen north. Tea is never made with melted snow. It’s made of lake water, gathered by chiseling a hole through the ice. (Tea made from melted snow tastes like burnt milk.) This task takes an hour, if you’re lucky. Wood is then gathered, chopped and lit. Energy is spent and hunger gets worse.
We made the tea. I respected Charlie. I didn’t understand him at the time. But I did honour him. Even when he called me a “silly over-hyper white man.”
The tea was done and I was about to kick snow over the fire to extinguish the hot coals when Charlie motioned for me to reach for the shotgun. “Let’s have lunch,” he said. There, in front of us, was the snowshoe hare. Northern rabbits keep to their established runs due to the deep snow. That meant the hare would eventually circle back. It did, and I didn’t miss this time. The tea and rabbit were divine.
Being out on the land with people who take pleasure in the cold season can be life-changing. The further north one goes, the more common winter travel is. In fact, it’s the prime season to go gallivanting in the woods. Most of our southern population cringes the moment it gets cold outside; and when the rare individual heads into the frozen landscape, they’re viewed as a deranged explorer tempting fate.
Charlie taught me the opposite. Winter travel is a time to be calm and collected. It’s not a time to try and survive; it’s a time to live. Allow your body and mind to embrace the cold, not dread it. There is a moment of transition, of course. When you first go from the warmth of your house or car to the frigid wintry air, you second-guess your sanity. Then, gradually, your anatomical furnace kicks in. You adjust; even thrive. Layers of clothes are removed, your body warms and the feeling of being out in what author Calvin Rutstrum labelled a “paradise below zero” becomes highly desirable.
I spent a month travelling with Charlie in the frozen north, helping to check his trap lines and generally being schooled in the joy and freedom of winter travel. Beyond drinking bush tea and hunting snowshoe hare, I made my own snowshoes, Anorak and winter moccasins. I roasted a moose nose over the campfire, cooked up a beaver’s tail, weaved a bed of spruce boughs and travelled more than 200 kilometres over snow and ice. I was never cold, uncomfortable or miserable; something I can’t say for others living in the south. While they were waiting impatiently for winter to be over, I was praying for it not to end.