If there’s a silver lining in these challenging times it’s the fact cold weather outdoor activities including skating, ice fishing, snowmobiling, cross country skiing, snowshoeing and hiking have all made a triumphant return.
While most of us are content with enjoying the outdoors close to home with a toasty fire nearby, Jocelyn McLean, 33, a veteran cold weather warrior, headed deep into the woods and hiked the rugged Mantario Trail, camping out for two nights, through freezing rain — alone in December.
Like most superhero types, she’s humble about her accomplishments. "The coldest night it dropped to -9C, which doesn’t seem like much now," says McLean, who works at Wilderness Supply here in Winnipeg and seasonally as a tour guide in Churchill.
A lifelong interest in the great outdoors blossomed into a full-scale obsession about a decade ago, and McLean’s map is now dotted with backcountry hiking trips that have taken her to the Grand Canyon, New Zealand and the forests of Patagonia — a sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America.
Her most memorable trips include sailing across the Pacific Ocean from Panama to the Cook Islands, canoeing from Winnipeg to Churchill and most recently she paddled the remote Seal River in Northern Manitoba.
McLean is making a name for herself as a trailblazer in the outdoor adventure world and has been sharing her journeys on a terrific new website. In addition to having a great eye with a camera she’s also an entertaining writer with terrific stories to share.
Prof. Popsicle on staying warm
We asked local cold weather expert Gordon Giesbrecht, a University of Manitoba professor of environmental physiology, known as Prof. Popsicle for his research on how humans interact with the cold, if winter camping during a cold snap like we've been having was even possible. He told us he'd actually been planning an overnight trek in the bush, but due to the extreme cold he's postponing his trip. So there you have it, if Prof. Popsicle says it's not a good idea, we should stick to day trips until the mercury rises.
"Someone could do a trip right now, but they'd have to be really experienced, this is not the weather when you do your first winter camping trip. This is an advanced level activity and you've got to have lots of experience with winter camping and how to take care of yourself in the cold," he says, "because it's not just can I walk from point A to point B in this cold weather, I have to remember, then I've got to stop, make camp, I've got to eat and then I've got to sleep and then I've got to get up and do it all over again tomorrow."
Giesbrecht does, however, encourage people to still get outside and enjoy themselves in the cold, but to always be cautious and to amke sure the proper gear is used and you have keep a close eye on yourself.
"If you actually become hypothermic you've really messed up bad, but you have a much greater chance of getting frostbite," he says. Hypothermia and frostbite are the two signifigant health issues you want to avoid, and the way to prevent that is first of all, as far as frostbite goes, never accept numbness. If your skin is numb that's because it is cold enough that it is getting close to freezing, so you need to cnahge something, either put more insualtion on, produce more heat by excercising harder or change your enviroment — get into a cabin or a tent."
When it comes to hypothermea the biggest warning sign is shivering for an extended period of time. "You may shiver for a couple of minutes because you stopped for a break, we've all felt that, but if you've been shivering for 10 or 15 minutes then again you need to either add insulation, do more excercise and produce more heat to warm up or again, or change your enviroment."
The Mantario trail is a 64-kilometre hiking trail between Caddy Lake and Big Whiteshell Lake. It’s recommended for experienced hikers; a typical backpacker takes about 30 hours over three or four days to complete the trail, but that would be under much more ideal conditions than the snowy and frozen trail McLean hiked.
This was her second journey through the Mantario Trail and she estimates more than 1,000 people made the hike last year, which played a big part in why she held off until December.
"I love how hiking can take you into the wilderness and away from everything, but circumstances surrounding 2020 also meant the trails were more popular than ever, I really wanted to go hiking, but I still wanted to social distance and I didn’t want to contribute to potential overuse of trails," says McLean. "When the first snow came, I did all my favourite trails and hardly saw anyone else. My friends and I were hoping to do the Mantario Trail sometime this fall but the timing was never right between work schedules, quarantine regulations and the weather."
In the first week of December the forcast was favourable, she was able to get time off from Wilderness Supply and with a couple of days of planning and packing everything fell into place.
Along with extra layers and warm socks, she brought along a reliable stove and plenty of fuel and an additional sleeping mat for added insulation at night and to sit on or kneel on during the day. The weather was still mild enough in December she didn’t even use a winter-specific tent, and slept in her normal down sleeping bag with a thermal liner. A satellite communication device was also packed — just in case.
A book about dogsledding was also packed, but she shared with a laugh that between hiking and the chores at the campsite she never got a chance to do any reading and a few pages from the book were actually used to start a fire.
Although McLean spotted many animal tracks and anticipated hearing wolves at night, other than a few hoots from the owls and the initially unfamiliar and daunting sound of shifting ice on the lake — which groaned like a moose — she was out there all alone in the wild.
Even an experienced backcountry veteran like McLean wouldn’t hike the Mantario now, in the dead of winter, it’s just too cold, but she really enjoyed the chance to make the trip in December.
The cold doesn’t scare her for day trips though and she still hopes to get out and do some snowshoeing in the Whiteshell or on Lake Winnipeg, and hike in Spruce Woods before spring.
"I love the winter. It’s hard to find the motivation to get outside when it’s so cold, but it helps to set out with a goal or a plan, like trying a new trail or going to a new park," says McLean. "My first time cross-country skiing was in -35C. Sometimes you’ve just got to bundle up and brave the cold. It’s so worth it."
Paul “Willy” Williamson joined the Free Press editorial team in 2007, turning his back on a career as a corrections officer. His motor has been running non-stop ever since.