A Night Out

Two Yellowknifers set out with dogs, wine, steak, peanut butter sandwiches and the Globe & Mail for a weekend at a wilderness shack. They never made it.

Tales told and photos taken by Janna Graham and Richard Gleeson

Janna’s Story

Janna by the fire.

When we reached the parking lot near the boat launch at Vee Lake, I had a funny feeling. It wasn’t just because it was already 3 o’clock. It was because Ritchie had asked me to study the map so that I, too, would know the route. Here’s the thing, I tried to explain – perhaps a bit too sharply – I was a driver, not a navigator. I don’t read maps and I don’t have any sense of direction. If I don’t have a guide, I get lost. Anyway, this was his trip because he’d been there before – just last year. I was tagging along.

The skiing conditions weren’t good that day. It wasn’t cold – around minus 20, but there wasn’t much glide. With a fiery sun hanging above the horizon, it still felt good to be scraping over the lakes and towards the shack – the dogs racing ahead of us. After about an hour, we stood at a fork in the road. Ritchie was clutching the map. I asked if he knew the route. It was at this point that I realized he wasn’t certain. He saw a flicker of panic in my face as I looked towards the sun, which was lingering just above the frozen lake. I figured we had about an hour until it got dark, maximum. I was worried. We talked and decided to keep going.

After about 40 minutes, we had consumed all our fuel: four peanut butter sandwiches, a couple of handfuls of chocolate almonds and a thermos of Bengal Spice tea.

Another few kilometres. Over Daigle Lake. Over Island Land. Through a snowmobile trail. Onto godforsaken Vital Lake. We flicked on our headlamps.

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The next four hours go something like this: we drag our skis through iced-over snowmobile trails that crisscross Vital Lake. If you haven’t been to Vital, all you need to know is that it goes on forever. We stop every once in a while to look at the ‘X’ on the map – the shack location – while also attempting to determine where we are on this now pitch-black lake. It all looks the same. We’re trying to find a snowmobile trail that’s off of a channel. We ski down this channel and that channel looking in vain. I’m hungry.

Even the dogs are dragging their heels. It’s now completely dark and we’ve been skiing for six hours straight. I can’t help but think that I would rather be anywhere else in the world at this moment – that this is the kind of situation I would think about from the comfort of my warm bed and be thankful that I’m not in. But I try to stay positive.

I sing my favourite Bob Dylan tune, “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Easter time too… when gravity fails and negativity don’t pull ya through…”

Silence from Ritchie.

He’s looking at the map and towards the woods, which is decidedly not the trail. Up to this point, I was suspending my disbelief as a matter of self preservation. We wouldn’t get lost. I visualized the shack, the fire, the steak the wine. We were lost.

“I’m getting worried,” I say.

Ritchie looks up from the map, ice crystallizing on his eyebrows. “That’s understandable,” he says.

Panic overtakes me. I am completely spent. My inner thighs are jelly and my ankles are swollen, frozen blocks. I have nothing left. I let a few hot tears slip out. At least they warm my frozen cheeks.

Sensing that I am close to the edge, Ritchie says: “Worst-case scenario – we stop and light a big fire.”

From my perspective, we are way past the worst-case scenario.

It’s after 9 o’clock. We ski into a cove with a patch of snow-covered spruce trees. I stand there, stunned with the realization that I will be spending the night out on a Yellowknife lake in January.

“We can clear away the snow for the fire pit,” Ritchie says.

I begrudgingly oblige and make a halfhearted attempt to help light the fire. With stiff fingers, we break off spruce branches and look for dead fall. For starter, we use the weekend Globe & Mail.

It takes a while for the fire to catch. We take the tarp off the sled. I slip my feet blocks into insulated rubber boots and put on my parka. We break off spruce boughs so we don’t have to sit on the cold ground. I get into the sleeping bags. The wine is cracked. I’m starting to get some feeling back into my fingers and toes. Things are looking up. As I watch the dogs devour the food that’s been tossed for them on the snow, I think we just might find the shack yet.

Then Ritchie says: “This isn’t so bad. I think it’s good to get out of our comfort zone. We’ll just keep this fire going and I can warm up and go looking again.”

I was lost on the lake in minus 30 with a deluded man. From where I was sitting, I couldn’t see anything good about being this cold.

What followed was long yet surreal. Ritchie disappears every 10 minutes or so, looking for that elusive snowmobile track (which surely must be nearby) and gathering wood. I stay immobile on the ground, wrapped in sleeping bags. In between mouthfuls of crackers and sips of iced red wine, I count the minutes, then the hours.

I try to sleep by laying close to the fire, but I can never get close enough. Just when I start to get toasty, I smell singed sleeping bag. Even though the ground is colder than the air, I can’t bring myself to get out of the sleeping bags and stand up. The dogs dutifully curled up beside me and I fall asleep for a few minutes with my head on Rae, a big bear of a dog.

Mostly, though, I just stare at the fire and try to think about something other than how cold it is or how nice it would be to take a steaming-hot shower.

At about 2:30 a.m., I’m alone as a brilliant, rainbow-coloured star hovers in the sky, like a firework suspended in mid-air. It gradually fades and remains glowing for about 20 minutes, and then goes out. It occurs to me that I am hallucinating and when the light fades, my hopes of getting rescued vanish.

At about four in the morning, Ritchie fries up one of the steaks on the fire. I clutch hunks of still-red meat in my glove, tearing at it with my teeth and gnawing pathetically.

At 8 o’clock my cellphone vibrates. We aren’t even out of range, yet we have no idea where we are.

At around 9 o’clock in the morning, it is light enough to start thinking about packing up camp. On my urging, we forget the shack, abandon the sled and follow our tracks back to the truck. Both of us are exhausted and sleep deprived. An hour later we set out for the long ski back.

I’m not going to lie – I would have hopped on the back of the first snowmobile that passed by. But we didn’t meet anyone on the way back so we retraced every bloody step. The only thing that kept me going is the idea of eating a hamburger once we got back to the city.

Richard’s story

At about 4 a.m., I lie down in front of the fire and rest my head. Janna’s is resting on one of the dogs.

I wake up seconds later.

“That fire gets cold when it dies down,” she says.

“Yeah,” I say, then get up and stand nearer the embers.

My first thought is, how did the fire burn down in only a few seconds? Then I realize it has been longer. I feel the cold much closer.

Through the night, I get wood a couple of times each hour. I try to get away without the dogs, but they meet me on our shoreline trail through the knee-high snow, wagging their tails as if we were going for a walk.

Keeping the fire going is the least I can do, the only thing I can do, after getting us lost.

We ski back when it gets light. The Papa Burger meal at A & W is excellent.

That’s about it. Thanks for reading about our trip and have a great day.

The rest is filler based on the time I’ve spent thinking about it since. Keeping that fire going and skiing back was a lot easier than figuring out a way of looking at that trip as anything other than a shining example of my own stupidity and disregard for others. I’ve managed to come up with a few angles.

Nobody lost an eye

It didn’t take me long to figure out that skiing into an unfamiliar frozen wilderness just before it gets dark was not a good idea.

It occurred to me at dusk, when the scenery stopped matching the map. To get truly lost, you have to be convinced you are going in the right direction when you are not. When it gets dark the map became easier to ignore. My imagination, mounting desperation, and the promise of the shack filled in the blanks, and I led us further from it.

After about five hours on our skis, the last couple spent searching shoreline in the dark, we slid over a 30-metre strip of land between the main lake and a smaller one. Even then, pathetically, I believed the shack would be on a small point just a few hundred metres from the strip of land. But as we skied onto the lake, there was no point and, once again, no shack.

I said we should light a light a fire. “How do you feel?”

“I’m tired, but I can go a bit further,” said Janna. She looked frightened.

“We can’t go until we burn out. We’ll be fine once we light a fire,” I said.

So we lit the fire. And we were fine. It was a very uncomfortable night, but nobody suffered any harm.

Misadventure – Adventure in its Purest Form

These days driving a Jeep is considered adventurous – adventure is a 7-day package tour of Egypt, or showing up in Yellowknife, or going outside city limits.

Here’s the definition of adventure in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary: a) an undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks, b) the encountering of risks.

You can’t buy true adventure. No legitimate insurance company or business would have anything to do with it. But you can create it. Doing what I did is one of the more obvious ways.

Twice through the night I went for walks out to the other side of the small lake we were on to scout around for a shack. I was still deluded by the promise of the shack, or a cabin, and saving the night. But there was nothing.

After the second walk I finally accepted we were outside to stay. I picked up some wood on the way back. As I was stoking up the fire, Janna said she saw coloured lights low in the sky, like a hovering fireworks display. But it moved from place to place. We were at a loss to explain what it was.

I settled the dogs as she adjusted her position from within her parka and sleeping bags to rest her head on Rae, one of my dogs. He didn’t move. Edzo, my other dog, curled up next to the back of her legs.

I stood by the fire as it grew. The sky was bright with stars. I could see the glow of the city on the horizon. I felt the warmth of the fire. I looked over into Janna’s hood. She was already asleep.

We were going to be okay. I felt some of the guilt and worry, and desperation to find the shack, slide off me.

I enjoyed the final hours under the stars, in front of the fire. They passed quickly.

That’s what I’ve come up with so far. Not quite enough to divert attention from the stupidity that led to the night out, but I think I’ve made some good progress in that direction.

 

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