When I was growing up in the Soviet Union, New Year’s celebration was a big deal. Christmas, like all religious holidays, was if not prohibited then strongly discouraged and was only celebrated quietly, behind closed doors. That put all the spotlight on New Year’s. Christmas tree was known as New Year tree, presents were delivered by Father Frost on New Year’s night, and all big gatherings were on December 31st. Most of the day was spent cooking and preparing for a big feast, which usually featured way more food than anyone could consume, mainly because all the feasts of my childhood were like that, but also because of the belief that New Year’s celebration set the tone for the whole year so lots of food on that night meant abundance throughout the year. Sometime before midnight, we would sit down to a table laden with food waiting for the big Kremlin clock to announce the arrival of a new year, nurturing that deepest wish which had to be whispered at the exact moment the clock struck 12. What followed was a night of eating, drinking and TV watching. Staying up all night was like a badge of honour, and on our first day back to school we would brag about who managed to “survive” the longest.
When we moved to Canada, we kept those traditions going for a few years but without all the hoopla around it got old pretty fast. So we decided to create our own traditions, and headed into the woods, of course.
Our first New Year’s trip was to Pinery. The temperature was hovering around zero, and there was zero snow on the ground. But we loved it anyway. Since then we’ve rung the new year in at Killarney, Allegheny State Park, Everglades in Florida and, back at Killarney last year. This year we decided to try a new place — Gatineau Park near Ottawa. For once I remembered the reservation date, and at exactly 9 am on November 1st I was ready: site selected, the arrow hovering over the “reserve” button.
Tiny house living
Gatineau has several types of winter accommodations: cabins, yurts and four-season tents, which are similar to yurts in terms of materials used but differently shaped. There is also good old camping for those who are looking for something more extreme.
We decided to go with a four-season tent because we’ve never tried one before. Plus they were cheaper than yurts and cabins. Roofed accommodations in Gatineau are generally more expensive than those in Ontario Parks. Yurts, for instance, cost $130 for a weeknight and $170 on weekends and holidays compared to Ontario’s $98. A four-season tent is $112 on weeknights and $130 on weekends and holidays.
All cabins, yurts and four-season tents come with beds and can accommodate anywhere from four to 17 people. They also have tables, chairs, some shelving and a counter top for food preparation. There are pots, pans, a kettle and basic utensils, like a ladle and spatula, provided so no need to bring your own. There is a fridge but it’s disconnected in the winter because, I guess, there is enough cold readily available outside (a cooler is provided for your perishables).
Heat is supplied by a wood stove (sometimes too much of it, especially on the upper bunks). The wood stove also worked perfectly for preparing most of our meals. During our stay we only used the BBQ outside twice.
Wood is provided for free sitting in neatly stacked piles in a shed just down the road. There is no electricity, which means no light apart from a small but sufficiently bright solar lamp.
No comfort stations are open in the winter either, just outhouses. Anyone who’s used one in the winter knows that it comes with a downside, or a frozen backside to be exact. But it’s just a minor inconvenience compared to all the joys of winter camping.
Getting there is half the fun
The most exciting part of staying at Gatineau is the remote location of its roofed accommodations. With park roads closed in the winter, there is a bit of work that needs to be done to reach your site. It’s like backcountry camping but with a bit more comfort. Most of the ready-to-camp units can be accessed either on skis or snowshoes and the distance varies from two to six kilometres. Ours was 3.9 on snowshoes or 3.4 on skis. When I told my husband the four-season tent was a walk-in, he didn’t think much of it because he assumed it was similar to Killarney or Silent Lake where yurts and cabins are located about 500 metres away from the parking lot. When I later specified that the distance was a bit longer than that, he gave me his typical “Why?!?” look but then took on the challenge with his usual zeal.
Since it was our first trip of this kind, it required some preparations. We already had snowshoes, courtesy of St.Nicolas/Santa Claus/Father Frost. Now we needed a sled to transport our gear and a large water jug because water is not available either and the lake is frozen. There is, of course, snow; but melting it is a time- and energy-consuming process: a large bowl of snow produces hardly an inch of water. A fun project for kids, though. We did resort to snow melting for dish washing in efforts to reserve the water we brought for drinking and cooking. And the tea on our last day was made of snow melt as well. It wasn’t half bad either. According to my older son, I’ve “outdone myself this time.” Quite a praise considering it was just tea so snow may have something to do with it.
(Another option is to purchase water from park staff and have it delivered to your site. They can also transport your gear but you need to make arrangements ahead of time. More information, including pricing, is available on the website.)
We decided to go for a full experience and transport our own gear, which meant, of course, we had to be in the park early enough to get to our four-season tent before dark. And we did try. We left Toronto at 8 planning to arrive in the park by 2 at the latest. But as luck would have it, southeast Ontario was hit by a snowstorm that day so our drive turned into eight hours.
By the time we parked our car at P19 in Gatineau, it was almost four. It took us about 30 minutes to register and pack our sled. By the time we hit the trail, the sun had already set down. Luckily, the park ranger said we could take a ski trail instead of a snowshoe one as long as we kept to the side. It was shorter and easier to follow.
The ski trail runs along the park road, plus there were a couple of maps and lots of signs and markers along the way so we had no problem finding our tent. It did take close to two hours: the snow was deep, the sled was heavy with a 23-litre water jug not counting food and some gear, and by the time we finished our trek it was pitch dark.
We met a couple of late-night skiers along the way who with their head lamps looked like floating balls of light. Other than that, the park was quiet, all sounds muffled by falling snow.
Our first night in the tent was uneventful. We unpacked. We had tuna salad wraps. We chopped wood. It took us some time to figure out the stove (Hint: pull the handle at the bottom to open up the vent. Yes, there are instructions on the wall but we didn’t see them because we’d covered them with our coats.) Eventually we got the fire going. We boiled some water for tea. In spite of the ranger’s warning not to put too much wood in, we put in too much wood and ended up sweltering, especially our older son on the upper bunk who had to open a window to let in some fresh air. The good thing, though, we didn’t have to add any more wood till next morning.
Off to a slow start
The next morning I was “kicked” out of bed by dropping temperatures and my younger son. After several failed attempts to restart the fire, I finally admitted that I would have to go outside and chop up some kindling. Luckily the axe provided was nice and sharp so it was easy-peasy. Once we got the cabin warmed up, we started breakfast.
I thought the smell of coffee and food would coax the other two members of our family out of their sleeping bags but they continued to snore peacefully. So we finished our breakfast and got to reading the logbook. We first came across a cabin logbook during our trip to Porcupine Mountains in Michigan and thought it was ingenious — a living record of the cabin, a communal quilt of story-telling. Through all the stories and memories shared in the log, we felt connected to people we’ll probably never meet but who share our love of camping and nature. The logbook for our four-season tent had drawings, including one of a mean older sister, game scores and funny stories, although some did sound a bit made up. Like a tale of a group of girls who’d run out of food and tampons and stumbled upon the tent at night on the 39th day of their trip only to be woken up by the campers in the morning. Or someone who’d gone to investigate the noise outside warning that if he doesn’t finish his story it means he didn’t make it. The story, of course, remained unfinished. Funnily enough, we did hear a noise on our last night in the tent, which sounded like someone walking outside. The logbook provided explanations: both supernatural — ghost, and more realistic — plastic scratching against the stove chimney.
It was a slow morning but eventually we got outside. Our destination that day was Lake Taylor, although I doubted we’d be able to reach it considering we left so late. And I was right, of course, but it didn’t matter because it’s always about the walk, not the destination.
It was a beautiful day although a bit cold. The snow had stopped and the sun made occasional breaks through the clouds.
There were quite a few people out skiing but we only came across a handful of snowshoers.
We also met a couple of turkeys. I followed them into the bush to get some unobstructed photos. Instead, I ended up in the snow (note to self: backing away in snowshoes to get a better shot not a good idea). I and, most importantly, my camera were both fine.
We followed trail 74 to Lake Renaud, where we took a break at the most magnificent warming shelter we’ve ever seen.
There was a bird feeder right in front, and we watched a big group of blue jays while eating crackers and hummus and drinking tea. Once I got outside to get better pictures, most of them disappeared. It seemed to be the theme of the day – me getting outsmarted by birds.
We walked a bit further around Lake Renaud and then turned back.
After retracing our steps back to the main trail juncture, we took trail 73, which led us to Lake Philippe.
The stretch between the lake and our four-season tent was quite tricky climbing up snow-covered stairs, weaving and turning through an empty campground. And as we tried to find our way back, we thought how much harder our trip would have been if we’d had to take it the night before.
We returned to the tent just in time for a sunset. The evening was spent in the made-up world of Catan. Yes, we lugged a board game with us. It is a camping tradition we weren’t prepared to forego.
The second night was slightly colder, plus we tried to go easy on the stove in the evening, so I had to wake up twice to add more wood. In the morning, though, my husband was up before me, and by the time I got out of my sleeping bag, coffee was ready and the tent was warm and cozy. Miracles do happen on New Year’s Eve!
The last day of the year was a snowy one. Snow started in the morning and didn’t stop until late at night. It was as if the world was trying to cover up all the disappointments of 2016 and start the new year with a clean snowy-white slate.
This time we decided to explore trail 73 in the other direction. It hugged the shore for a while, and the wind from the lake was biting.
Eventually we found some shelter from the wind near a comfort station, a perfect spot for a tea break.
After that the trail started climbing up so we warmed up pretty quickly. The forest wrapped up in a snow blanket looked magical.
For a while, we entertained the idea of getting all the way to Lusk Caves. Soon, though, everyone got tired and hungry and started dreaming of our warm tent and minestrone. So two hours into our hike, we took another quick snack break and decided to turn around.
We thought it would take us about two hours to get back. But then instead of taking the lake route, we just ambled through the campground reaching our tent in less than an hour. Minestrone never tasted this good.
We still had eight hours to go before midnight but there was Catan to keep us busy. Those who played it before know one game can take hours. When we finished the first game, it was time to start preparing our new year’s meal. By the standards of our homeland it was positively meagre: just fish, potatoes and some leftover cucumbers and broccoli with cheese. But it was filling, delicious and set around a Catan board. What more could we wish for?!
After the meal and another game, we got outside to get ready for New Year’s arrival.
Ringing in New Year away from people reminds how relative and completely made up our concept of time is. As we counted down to midnight and toasted 2017 amidst the solemn stillness of the woods, there was a moment when we questioned whether it really happened. Then the bangs from the neighbouring yurt reminded us that 2017 did indeed arrive.
The next order of business was writing 2017 with sparklers, something we’ve been doing since 2013 (except for that one time when we didn’t have sparklers at Everglades and our attempt to write 2015 with burning marshmallows was a complete fiasco, not to mention a waste of four perfectly good marshmallows).
That annual photo is a bit of a project and often requires several takes because either not all sparklers light up at the same time or someone draws a number backwards. Several times I had to photoshop a couple of pictures together. This year we only had five sparklers, though, so there was no room for errors. It turned out our best one yet on the first try. I’ll take it as a good sign.
The first day of 2017 was bright and sunny. It was that time of the year when everything seems possible, when the world is filled with hope, when you want to believe the new year will be better than the one we’d just said goodbye to.
As we left our tiny home of the past few days, we felt lighter, both literally (minus 23 litres worth of water and a bag of food) and figuratively, ready to take on whatever 2017 brings along.
Happy New Year, everyone!