Snow

Canoeing through a snowstorm can be very beautiful. I realize that sounds a little unbelievable. We are five days out from the trailhead, on a lake in Algonquin Park in Ontario. It is snowing heavily, there is no wind. The background is completely gray, the shoreline completely obscured. The air and water meet without a horizon line.

All around us the white snow flakes fall into the mirror-like surface of the lake. If your eye follows a single flake down, you see it meet its reflection, which appears to be coming up out of the water. The two meet at the surface and disappear, like snow and anti-snow coming together, but utterly silent.

If you pull back your mind's visual eye and watch the snowfall rather than the individual snowflakes, something else happens. You again see the falling flakes coming down through the featureless gray. But you also see their reflections as they near the surface, so in the bottom half of your visual field it looks as if the flakes are shooting up out of the lake into the air. All of this is one of those minor epiphanies that are why I go to the wilderness.

Canoeing on a big, calm lake in a snowstorm is also a little disorienting. When the snow is heavy you can't see the shore. It isn't so much that you can't see landmarks, it's that you can't see where the water and air change from one to another. There isn't any reference point for horizontal. I guess I'm not normally aware of how much the little corrective movements I make in a canoe are dependent on visual cues like the horizon. I seem to need to be able to see where "up" is to make those little corrections that make the canoe so stable. To make things even more disorienting, there is the movement from the falling snow flakes. You watch the snowflakes, you eye following them down, and with the lack of any background cues your mind can trick you into believing that those discrete little snowflakes are stationary and the gray background is moving. The information from your eyes contradicts your inner ear's sense of movement and balance and you can get confused.

Perhaps we put the canoe trip off a bit too long that year. One thing and another got in the way so we ended up canoeing in Algonquin from the last week in September thru the first week in October.

We had a few nice days, sunny and in the 50's. There was hard frost on those clear days and it was down to around 20 by dawn. Mostly we had cold rain, or sleet, or graupel, or snow. Sleet is when rain freezes on the way down. Graupel is when snow melts and refreezes into hard little pellets on the way down. Neither is particularly pleasant. The temperatures on those days were in the 20's or low 30's. In camp you stay in your sleeping bag, or sit under the rainfly and feed the campfire. Neither is halcyon, but at least you don't freeze.

However, you have to keep moving, because you'll run out of food before you run out of trip. So you get in the canoe and paddle. Or portage. That's a part what canoe trips are all about. You just have to keep going. It's less easy to cope with. But with sweaters and rain gear (and life jacket so that if you dump you don't go down like a rock) you can do it.

 

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