Frozen-Footed Hunt

Don't underestimate BC's variable weather

Stamping down a tent-sized patch in the snow, I question at what point I lost feeling in my feet.

It was probably during the side-by-side ride to the trail head, which was fun in a cold, dark way. Bryce was at the wheel and we sandwiched his wife Martha between us. I alternated trying to get away from the snow and wind by squishing Martha into a flatter cheese and leaning out to make sure we weren’t leaving Kevin bouncing on the road.

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Some ambitious character carved deep, frequent ruts in the road. At each one, we got out and eyeballed the angles, cringed as the front scraped and the back crunched, and piled back in to enjoy the lurch for another 100 snowy metres.

We left the side-by-side before the last impossible cavernous rut and planted camp just beyond it. The dark night and thick powder hid the trail head and we decided to start the hike in the morning.

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So there I was, stamping the snow down with a couple of ice cubes.

We are on an early October hike-camp-hunt trip, elevated to where a foot of sparkling snow muffles the world. We have three days to fill our freezer with fresh venison and we saw deer where we parked the truck, so we are optimistic.

Thick frost lines the inside of the tent in the morning. By the time the other three rouse themselves and emerge into the dark with luxurious yawns, the only warm and functioning part of me is my frustration. I am below freezing.

I didn’t get a wink; every toss exposed another body part to the cold seeping through my mat, sleeping bag and the layers I added overnight. By 5 a.m. I have had it, and the 5 a.m. alarm sounds like sweet music.

I, and approximately 20 per cent of adults, have Raynaud’s Syndrome, meaning the arteries in my hands, feet and other areas overreact to the cold and constrict without warning. My fingers and toes turn white and numb. Once chilled, I don’t slowly warm up spaces like pockets and frozen boots – my extremities stay cold and get colder upon contact with chilly material. Backpack clips and tent poles are my demise. I am essentially a lizard.

This morning, my feet are ice. Kevin and I play the foot game – a two-person foot tap dance resembling a TikTok fad that leaves me feeling left footed – to try and thaw a few toes.

We find the trailhead with the rising sun and, hiking through the sparkling snow, the rest of my white and chilled digits begin to defrost. Bryce and Martha get into character and try to disguise their scent, sticking evergreen twigs behind their ears.

The trail leads us into the scrubby tree-studded alpine buried in powder and flooded with sunshine. Dozens of small critter trails crisscross the blanket of snow and we linger most of the day to glass and soak up the rays, but don’t find any deer sign. The trees drop glistening beads on us during the trek back, making me wonder if the weather will turn in my favour.

Being caught unprepared for the weather made the author’s trip a downright chilly experience.
Being caught unprepared for the weather made the author’s trip a downright chilly experience.

The sun quickly sinks out of sight back at camp; the mountains surrounding us are high and steep. We push over some damp, dead standing trees and encourage a reluctant fire with twigs dipped in fir sap pockets and crispy black grandpas beard. We eat from hot pouches, dry our gloves, and I try to figure out how to capture the ever-appearing stars with my cold camera and numb fingers.

I am unaware I will soon forget I have feet.

I have wakeful dreams of marinating in the sun all night. Day two dawns overcast and cold – the mountains are cloaked with stony indifference to hopes of sunny hiking.

Our friends Bryce and Martha are chiefly road hunters, but my husband Kevin is a chronic walker – a term we appropriated for him because we always find out what’s beyond the next hill.

Bryce and Martha zip around on the side-by-side to cover ground and glass cut blocks, while Kevin and I trudge the steep country in stiff hikers. I am happy to walk and keep my blood flowing. The little details nature awards to those who go on foot bring the muted mountains to life. A grouse’s wing tips skim the snow in perfect parallelism. Here and there is good tinder for tonight’s fire. A half-brown, half-white rabbit flees in a flurry of frantic hops.

We meet up with Martha and Bryce on a few occasions throughout the day; once to watch a black bear cruising the edge of a cut block, again to put an unsuccessful, knee-deep stalk on a small buck browsing the mountainside with a few does.

The sun teases me, setting the tip of a distant peak aglow. I’m distracted from the nauseating pain of a thawing hand by a fresh set of cat tracks. We map his prowls around over logs and through the deep snow, note the paw shape and hypothesize his life story.

If the expression “a warm hunter is a deadly hunter” is true, I am harmless.

We crunch through tire-packed snow and my boots pound out the rhythm of the thoughts reverberating in my mind – fire, sun, hot food. I am going to burn my tongue tonight.

The side-by-side careens by and I lose my beat.

Bryce and Martha jerk to a halt and flash big grins our way. Sure enough, a buck lies in the back. Bryce’s base layers, sleeves rolled up high, are patched with sweat and he’s toque-less. As he tells the uphill shot, steep hike and deadfall-impeded retrieval story, I smooth my hands over the buck’s silky, sandy peppered hair and relish the lingering warmth of its body.

The pace of the day picks up: voices ring and babble and we laugh, exuberant. Internally, I celebrate the excuse to boot it back to camp early and build a bonfire.

We leave the gut pile behind and speed back to camp, jolting crazily through the ruts. The clouds fall fast. Chunky snowflakes melt on bloody hands and steaming purple-red meat while the guys break down the deer a little way away from camp. The late afternoon light and icy air is softened by waves of flurries.

Martha and I body slam a few more dead standing trees, wrestle them to camp, build a fire and go add our two cents to the dilemma on how to hang the meat in safety. The combination of cat tracks and bear is ample reminder that storing meat in nature’s freezer isn’t an ownership claim, and until we store the meat in our own freezers we have to keep it out of reach.

Too-tall, limbless trees make achieving this more of a struggle than anticipated, so we decide to hang the meat from the side-by-side roof. Kevin says he read wolves will respect a pee boundary, so he and Bryce mark a circular territory around the side-by-side and stand back to admire their handiwork.

Teamwork makes the dream work, and hot food helps everyone forget a chilly day afield.
Teamwork makes the dream work, and hot food helps everyone forget a chilly day afield.

At camp, the fire is sending up smoke signals of distress. Laughs, teamwork and a glowing fire make camp home. Bryce stands on a log to keep it steady and Martha helps Bryce keep his balance as Kevin saws through. Martha and I talk each other into much needed chilly excursions to the woods for relief and find out it is not as big of a deal as we made it out to be.

Spice foresight lacking, we dine on strips of deep red tenderloin seasoned with the brown sugar Bryce and Martha brought for their oatmeal.

We savour the wild flavour, the satisfied feeling of a productive trip, and hot, sweet coffee. I burn my tongue. Kevin burns a hole in his sock. A cloud of moisture billows up from our steaming boots and pants and we pass around a flask of salted caramel Bailey’s. I’m warm and it is a delicious feeling.

The pink bag of venison and I freeze good and solid overnight.

In the morning, we find large tracks from a lone wolf in the fresh snow. The prints circle the suspended venison but never cross the pee line and instead trot up the hill above our camp. We peer up into the trees and imagine White Fang is watching us. In my mind, he gives Kevin and Bryce a nod of respect.

We backtrack the prints and they lead us down to the gut pile. Blood-streaked snow and wolf prints radiate out from where we left the innards and only the stomach full of last meal greens remains.

As the grey of the last unsuccessful day fades into an evening of muted violet, we clean up camp, cram sleeping bags into stuff sacks and dismantle our icy homes. Our tent poles are freeze-welded together. Kevin and I breathe on them until we’re dizzy. Bryce and Martha laugh at us as they strap the flat, frozen deer hide to the side-by-side roof.

Once our tent is stuffed away in our packs, two patches of icy ground make it obvious where we spent three nights melting through the snow. Bryce and Martha didn’t do any melting.

Part of the motive of this October trip was to give Bryce and Martha a backpacking hunt experience, but instead they taught me a lot about counting ounces on a trip where fall is in wintery disguise.

That is, don’t. Hiking boots, one sweater and a jacket won’t keep anyone warm enough in the unsympathetic mountains, never mind a lizard like me.

Jerking down the forestry service road without meat for our own freezer, I console myself with the thought that the crack of the rifle only gets a sentence or two in a story anyways. We will remember the experience, I decide, as my fingers thaw one by one. The hide thaws too and splashes murky liquid onto us with each lurch.

Back at the truck, I forgive myself for coming so unprepared and remember why I had. Here, snow is MIA, the temperature hovers comfortably above zero, and as we travel towards the nearest town the weather becomes downright balmy.

In town, a cinnamon bun sign in the window of a tiny bakery puts our salivary glands in overdrive. While Bryce fuels up, Kevin and I scurry across the road – laces flapping – and jingle the bell. We stand in our camo grubs and, heading a sudden queue of tourists that stream from a bus, are aware we smell three days old.

But a huge sleepy grin cracks my dry face. While waiting for a mammoth sticky-sweet bun, I regain feeling in my feet.