Tales from the Trails

How Not to Camp in the Winter

Another tale from the trails for a cozy fireplace read:

I asked my brother Allan to write me an account of his misfortunate winter adventures. I remember his tale of all the things that went wrong on this unforgettable weekend class trip. Ill informed and unprepared they ventured into the frosty wilderness of the Ontario, Algonquin Highlands. 




Tales from the Trails –

How Not to Camp in the Winter


So, this tale occurs early in the 1980s (1982, I believe) on a wintery Thursday in February. It was scheduled that our group of four were to go to a winter retreat destination, with 12 others, to experience some outdoor activities. 

It was a pre-organized event for my university fitness course and all we understood was to bring some winter clothing and personal items (according to a winter checklist) and the other supplies would be furnished on site. No real itinerary was given prior to arrival, but we were reassured that we would not be abandoned in the woods during the weekend.

One of us had a car and agreed to pick up the three others living around the Toronto area before heading out of town just before 11 am. In an excited, jovial mood, we arrived at the outdoor centre near Whitney (Algonquin Park area) around 2 pm-ish. Of course this was pre-internet / cell phone era and we had not really looked at the long-range weather forecast. We were young, in our early twenties, and sadly we made assumptions about this organized trip.

At the main lodge we were given our equipment for the four-night stay. Our guide explained to us that we would be rotating around the premises from one style of accommodation to the next.

We were each given cross-country skis (not properly waxed, nor measured to our height); a 40-lb backpack filled with supplies; a down sleeping bag (matted and clumped from many years of use, and, as I would come to realize in the next three nights, virtually useless in the winter); a map of our route to follow over the next three days; and a tent for the first night’s accommodations.

winter fire

The first destination—a hillside location, tight to some trees⁠—was not too far away, only three kilometres, but the terrain was challenging. Up and down hills at dusk on icy track conditions with ill-fitted, un-waxed skis. At one point, I fell forward on a descent and the tip of my ski cut my cheek just under my eye. Not a great way to start.

Our foursome had departed late, 3:30 pm, and we knew it was going to be a challenge to get set up before dark; a brisk wind and snow squall didn’t help. 

Of course, tents in that decade were one-season tents that were always a mystery to set up. We had literally thirty minutes to get this thing together, but, of course, there were no instructions. We asked ourselves, “How difficult can it be?” Well, we struggled royally. With darkness upon us and two flashlights to assist, we only managed to get it half assembled. Were we missing poles? Pegs? Other pieces? 

In the end, we tied off one part of the tent to a neighbouring tree so that it could stand erect. Quickly, we put our sleeping bags down and laid our backpacks to one side of the tent. It was too windy to get a fire going, so we feasted on granola mix for supper and decided on an early night. I slept with all my clothes and a jacket on. It was a cold night, but I figured tomorrow we would plan out our day more judiciously.

winter hiking

The next day, one of the few attendants that slept in a nearby cabin came by early in the morning and escorted us to an eating area where we had a good solid brunch. Revived, we learned that our next evening would be in a quinzee, a snow cave, that we had to dig out ourselves. 

We decided to dig out our digs and set up our sleeping arrangements before going on an afternoon 30-kilometre ski. It was a sunny day and quite beautiful. What could go wrong? Well of course, the skiing was manageable and fun, but we were sweaty and dehydrated by the end. It was challenging to find water and stay warm when we returned to camp. 

As night descended upon us, we had a campfire to give us a little reprieve from the elements while we ate our supper. Thankfully, as the winds increased, we could retire to the shelter of our snow cave. We ended up huddling close together to minimize heat loss throughout the night. It was freezing cold again, but bearable, since the quinzee blocked the wind.

When we awoke, much to our surprise, the roof of our cave had dropped to just about a foot from our heads. Our heavy, heated breathing throughout the night was the cause.

Fortunately, the ceiling didn’t collapse on us as we slept!

After breakfast, we did some snowshoeing, had lunch and continued on skis to our next accommodation. Tonight’s abode was going to be a bit of luxury…a wooden cabin with a stove!

We carried on with our backpacks and followed our map. The trail wasn’t too intense, 20 kilometres, and we enjoyed our afternoon, giddy with the knowledge of a cabin in our future.

Well, after supper we entered our cabin and noticed eight bunk beds and a central wood stove. When we closed the door, we quickly realized that the wind was easily penetrating the century-old rustic cabin.

Because I couldn’t tolerate another freezing night of disrupted sleep, I took it upon myself to fill the indoor wood box to the brim with logs from the outside wood pile. I had that stove almost glowing red by 9 pm and finally felt warm and comfortable as I headed to my bunk.

We settled in our bunks in our awful sleeping bags, blissfully unaware that the temperature that night would drop to -40 C. I awoke at 2 am, freezing and miserable, and noticed that the fire was almost out. For the next five hours, I stood, along with two others, by the wood stove, feeding the hungry beast, hoping it would penetrate the arctic temperature to warm us. 

I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that the heat radius from the wood stove that evening was barely a metre. We could not fully warm ourselves until the sun shone through the windows at 8 am. What should have been a relaxing evening on a bunk bed mattress had sadly devolved into another very challenging, sleepless night.

Discouraged and defeated, we complained to our leaders that we had sustained a few terrible evenings. Obviously, we were excited to learn that this last night would be at an insulated cabin with a larger stove. Eureka! Off to Nirvana we went!

As we looked at our map, we saw several paths to our final destination. With more than enough time, we decided to take the longest route to enjoy a good workout on a scenic trail. This was our mistake. What we didn’t know was that one of the leaders had left an hour earlier to meet us at the halfway point on the most direct trail, which wasn’t the route we took. So our paths never crossed. 

Communication, all weekend, was not easy out in the wilderness, which had a  negative effect on all participating groups.

winter cabin

Eventually we arrived at the insulated cabin! Ah…perfect! Our B & B awaited us. One… slight…problem.

The door was locked! Who would lock a cabin in the middle of nowhere in the winter? 

Now, what to do? The sun was starting to set, we were heavily dehydrated, and our sweat was turning into a cold chill. We came up with some insane ideas. Being in a state of distress, we attempted to break in. 

We soon abandoned efforts because we didn’t want to damage the property. Just before dusk, thankfully, the leader appeared at the cabin. Let’s just say he was not happy that our meeting up on the trail earlier in the day didn’t happen as he had planned. 

In the end, we entered that lovely warm domain and spent a glorious evening replenishing our fluids in an insulated, cosy (26 degrees!) cabin.

Our experience with surviving the frigid temperatures gave us a deeper appreciation of what early settlers had to contend with out on the wild Canadian frontier.

Going forward, forty years later, there have been great improvements in camping equipment, outdoor clothing and communication. Our trusty Scouts and Guides have taught us, you have to be prepared, which we were not! I guess that was our life lesson learned.

In hindsight, if we had had a four-season tent; wool layers; warm, functioning, reliable sleeping bags; and numerous water containers, we would have been comfortable every day of our winter camping experience.

What we took away from this experience is really common sense: be safe; respect the elements; do not make any assumptions about your equipment, food, weather and shelter; know what you’re getting yourself into; make sure there is a quick out if needed; and most of all, enjoy the moments out in the wilderness!


By Allan Roitner

An Invitation to Submit Your Own Tales


If you have experienced any interesting tales from the trails, I encourage you to submit your own stories. You don’t have to be a great, established author. Just send me your proposed outline or write a short little entertaining tale about your Nordic ski or snowshoe adventures here in Ontario or elsewhere. 

If you took photos to support your text, all the better, email me those, too. I am sure we all have a few campfire stories we could share on OST. 

Send me a message from my contact page


Dan Roitner

Here is another Tail from the Trails – My Cell Phone is Lost in the Snow   or read
On One Ski to the Hot Tub

March 17, 2023No comments
On One Ski to the Hot Tub

With the lack of snow lately in Southern Ontario, I thought I’d maybe entertain you with one of my own old ski trail stories. 

Sit back with your favourite beverage and read on as I elaborate on the heroic tale of a ski adventure I did with a few ski buds decades ago.


Tales from the Trails


I was up for the weekend with my Nordic ski group near Haliburton, Ont.  We stayed at the Wigamog Inn to enjoy the trails, some fine dining, and good times together. We were all cyclists who liked skiing in the off season from the Toronto Bicycling Network TBN.

It was a beautiful, blue-sky, sunny kind of day, yet a cold one, I’m thinking at least -12C. A group of us were young and adventurous and planning a long cross-country ski trek for the day. We had heard about a connecting trail to Glebe Park and decided to investigate. 

We had learned that behind the trails at the Inn, one could cut across the Pinestone Inn golf course trails and continue on, to the other side of Highway 21. There sure enough, when we got across the highway, we found a little-known and unused ski track that we figured would eventually connect to the Glebe Park trail network five or so km away.  As a little bit of bushwhacking wasn’t a problem for us younger lads, onward we went. There were about five of us.

When we got to the back end of the Glebe trails we did a few loops. Eventually, the other lads started heading back to the inn and I was left on my own to make my way back.  I cannot recall why, but it’s a safe bet I wanted to do a different loop and planned to catch up with them a little later.

Wigamog Inn
Better days for the Wigamog Inn

Glebe hilly trails
Glebe hilly trails

At some point, one of my ski bindings broke. This is not a common occurrence, and needless to say not a good thing to happen to anyone. The trails here are very hilly, and I think I had done a silly move, fallen, brushed off the powder, and was surprised to find my ski detached.

I assessed my situation. There was no way to repair the binding, and it was going to take a long time and a lot of effort to walk out. As well, I had been skiing pretty hard all day and had worked up a sweat. I would catch a chill soon if I didn’t keep moving. 

It was late in the afternoon and still sunny, but it would be dark and colder in a few hours. I had seen no one on the trails for quite some time. What to do?  

Well, making my way back to the Inn was just too far on foot. I decided to head the opposite way to the Haliburton Highlands Museum at the Glebe trailhead, find a pay phone or staff working at the museum, and call the Inn to have them pick me up.

Now, these were the primitive days, back in the year 1998 BC (before cell phones.) So it was pretty normal to be a self-sufficient skier with no means of contact. No helicopter was going to pluck me out of this rather dire situation. 

I was at the far end of the loop and still had to do what felt like 10 km to get to the museum.  So what else could I do but ski there on one foot.

I was going to have to master a new Nordic technique: one-legged skiing! 

Glebe ski trails
There are no photos of me on one ski

I grabbed my broken ski. How was I to carry it back?  I held it together loosely in my mit with my ski pole on the side I was skiing on as extra stability. What else could do? I would use my other pole and now skiless boot to push me along and headed off to see how this might work out.

Glebe is considered one of the more advanced ski areas in Ontario and is normally lots of fun and a good workout. I usually appreciate lots of big hills and fast descents. Not today. 

The ski strategy I developed was to glide down on one ski as much as gravity would grant me. This would cover more ground than walking. To even things out, I switched the ski with the good binding from one foot to the other as I went.

It was a bit of a balancing act and of course, there was no kick involved to propel me, just a lot of pole/foot action (while holding on to my other ski). 

But there was a limit to how fast going down a hill I could manage. Risking another fall that might make my situation worse would be foolish. From the top of a hill, if it looked like I might get too much speed, I had to unfortunately walk down the whole thing. I had no brakes!  Going up, was all foot power. There was no way to go up those hills on one ski. 

As you can imagine, my progress was slow, but I was managing, and there was no sense of panic. I had skied here before, I was experienced, and I was determined not to have the wolves find me for dinner.

What kept me going was the reward awaiting me.

The Inn had a large, hot tub in the basement. My end goal!  I just had to keep going. I was driven and focused, imagining myself floating in the hot bubbles to recover from just a little bit too much adventure that day.

By the time I got to the museum, the lights had come on and twilight was in the air. I had made it!  It was a relief to be warm inside the heritage museum. A call was made to the Wigamog and within half an hour I was lying in that well-deserved hot tub.

When I returned years later with a girlfriend, the Inn, regrettably, was falling into disrepair, and now it is no more. The connector trail has since disappeared. But you can still ski Glebe Park. If you do, I recommend you do it on two skis.


enjoy the bubbles
Enjoying the bubbles

An Invitation to Submit Your Own Tales


If you have experienced any interesting tales from the trails, I encourage you to submit your own stories. You don’t have to be a great, established author. Just send me your proposed outline or write a short little entertaining tale about your Nordic ski or snowshoe adventures here in Ontario or elsewhere. 

If you took photos to support your text, all the better, email me those, too. I am sure we all have a few campfire stories we could share on OST. 

My brother tells a great story about, miscommunicating with a ski guide and trekking in a blizzard near Algonquin, with no key to get into the cabin at the end of the day. I asked him to write about it …how about you?

Send me a message from my contact page


Dan Roitner

Here is another Tail from the Trails – My Cell Phone is Lost in the Snow

February 18, 2023No comments
My Cell Phone is Lost in the Snow

A Tale from the Trails:


Fresh powdered snow may be a joy to ski through, but I was just reminded in a very real way last weekend that it can also be very good at hiding things.

As I was trying out a new pair of skate skis at Albion Hills on the Black 6.5 km skate loop, I fell on a rather steep descent. At the bottom was one of those quick right turns, and I was not used to these new skis, blah, blah, excuses, excuses.

There I went head over heels into the powder snow, with no injury to me except to my ego. Having almost done the splits (yikes),  I rolled over in the snow giggling to myself and got up without popping off my skis. (very macho)

Taking a moment to dust myself off, I noticed my waist pack pocket was unzipped! Looking inside, wallet check, power bars check, cell phone!!

No phone!?? OK not cool, where is it?

The height of the new snowfall was a good 30cm (12 inches) of powder. A very fine mass of fluffy flakes, the kind that does not leave a clue when disturbed. And the phone was in there, where could be?  With one ski I fanned the snow back and forth right down to the ground in the area of the fall – Nothing!

Had the phone shot out of my pack farther into the woods when I did that tumble?

Perhaps somehow it had popped out along the way before I got here,  or I had left it at the chalet with my girlfriend. What to do, but head back and check.  Retracing my 4 km path over three BIG hill climbs, across the open field with the nasty arctic winds I went.  Nope, not there.

OK, I had to re-grouped at the chalet, warmed up, and quickly eat lunch knowing that a cold battery in the snow will not last long. I had decided to borrow my lady friend’s phone to call myself when I got back to the spot where I fell.

What were the chances that buried in the snow the phone would get a signal, and I would hear it ring?

I weighed the efforts to ski there and back, I was tired, as I had already made the rounds that morning at Albion. This loop was an extra one, to test my new skate skies. Also, the chances of finding it in my mind were slim, maybe 20%, as I had done a thorough search.

As well, it must have been -15C that day and my GPS phone tracking app was still running, draining a cold battery quickly.

Should I write my phone off as a loss?

Well…off I went, I had to try quickly to call myself. The first thing was to find a shortcut to not suffer those damn hills four times over. Scrutinizing a paper trail map, I saw a way around. A little bushwacking never slowed me down.

I made it back in hast to the spot and as I was taking my skis off, I stepped on my phone!  What luck, I did not have to do any more sleuthing to find it. There it was my SONY cell phone, happy to see me, under my ski buried in the snow.

Had it been skied over by others while I was gone and damaged, thankful no? It was just a bit further on the path than where I had fallen.

phone lost in snow
I found my phone!…I was standing on it.


The message was loud and clear from this lucky incident.
You can lose stuff in the snow very easily and you may never find it!!

When your phone, car keys, glasses, wallet, camera, jewelry… go missing in all that white stuff, good luck finding it.

So the next time you venture out into Ontario’s winter wonderland, secure your valuables. Either leave them safe back at the trailhead or carry them in a safe spot. A zippered pocket is best (I have less faith in velcro) and not an open pouch, knapsack or pant pocket. And like I should have done, take the time to zip it back up.

Have a backup plan if stuff gets lost/stolen/broken.

What would you do?
Work out that plan before it happens.

Back up your phone data, and have a spare key for your car, and emergency cash. Can you leave a key with another ski buddy? Can they drive you home if you get hurt? Things happen on the trails when you least expect them. I’m relieved and glad I did find my phone.


btw – I am still looking for that lost “misplaced” house key hmmm …
should I go back in the spring to look for it?


Dan Roitner

Here is another Tale from the Trails – On One Ski to the Hot Tub

February 25, 2014No comments