Wolf Cubs and Boy Scouts were a constant theme throughout my youth. Through the activities and my never-ending quest to amass proficiency badges, my horizons were broadened and I gained new skills and knowledge. At the time, I didn't realize I was learning things, I was just having fun. From learning about nature, geography and gaining a love for reading, I also learned leadership and independence, growing to be quite proficient when I was away from the comforts of home. All have helped me through the rest of my life but, gaining that knowledge was sometimes not so much fun. I am mostly talking about The Night the Night Froze.
I am confident that most people understand that Scouting and camping go hand in hand. You really can't do much scouting without getting out into the woods, getting close to nature, maybe even eating a few bugs or twigs. I had no issues with this; family vacations generally consisted of camping in various provincial parks, accompanied by a lot of fun. With scouting, it meant roughing it a bit more and generally without the parents. This didn't always work because Dad was involved a lot as a Cub Master, but it was different when he was in charge. He was Akela more than he was Dad, and that was okay.
The focus on scout camping was to learn bushcraft, how to take care of yourself in the woods, but also involved a lot of fun things like learning really cool ways to light a campfire. One of my favorites involved stringing a wire from the campfire, up into a tree. This was done before any of the others attending the fire had arrived. One person would be stationed in the tree with a stick fashioned into an arrow, doused with some flammable liquid, generally naphtha. The person opening the fire ceremony would strut around the pile of wood, orating a bunch of mumbo jumbo about appeasing the fire gods and calling upon their favour to light the fire. At the right time, the one in the tree would light the arrow and send it down the wire, igniting the campfire with an apparent flaming arrow from the gods. This never failed to illicit many amazed oohs and aahs except one time when the wire broke, plummeting the arrow into the grass, igniting it and getting panicked oohs and ahhs. A quick fire-puter-outer dance corrected that situation, and we resorted to a handy match lighting the fire.
Camping activities like that made it all so much fun. However, part of scouting involved winter camping, learning how to survive, even to be comfortable, during frigid temperatures in the wild. In Canada, these are not hard to find. This is what led me to experience, The Night the Night Froze.
I no longer remember where this particular camp happened, some location I had never been at before. We were living in Kingston, Ontario at the time. I do recall there was a cabin or cottage on the property but, since we were there to experience true winter camping, we could only use it to store our food. We slept outside.
We had been coached regarding what gear to bring to ensure our comfort and during the day, I had no issues, learned how to build a fire in the snow, make a shelter to sleep in, all sorts of useful things. However, nothing prepared me for when the temperature dropped to about a hundred degrees below zero once the sun went down.
Despite having two sleeping bags, one inside the other, a blanket, as well as my fire blanket (one that was adorned with all sorts of cub and scout related badges from various jamborees and locations all over North America, when I woke up in the middle of the night, I was freezing. I also had to pee.
Being an avid reader, and interested in folk-lore and humour, I was well acquainted with the tales of Paul Bunyan. One of those tales involved a winter day that was so cold, the flames in the logger's lanterns froze solid. This night was colder than that. With that tale bubbling in my brain, I became convinced that the night was frozen in place and the dawn was never going to come. At some point in the future, aliens would visit our planet and find us still frozen in our beds.
Regardless of the cold, I had to take care of the pressure in my bladder but the thought of crawling out of my little sanctuary did not appeal to me. I was cold inside, it was going to be worse outside. However, at this time in my life I was still struggling with bed wetting (this plagued me until I was about thirteen). The thought of being found frozen in my pee soaked sleeping bag was enough to encourage me to crawl out, wrapped in my blankets, wander a short way away and relieve myself. I can still hear the pee crystalizing during its descent to the ground as I am certain it must have been flash frozen as it left my body. Such are the memories of my childhood.
Well, since you are reading this memory of that night, Jack Frost eventually relented and released his hold on us. The night didn't stay frozen forever, but I am confident that there were several hours at least where it didn't move at all. When morning did come, I talked with some of the other kids but none of them had seemed to notice.
I have done a lot of winter camping since that night, even well into my adult years as both a soldier and a Scout Leader and I am happy to advise that I have never again encountered a night so cold that was frozen in time. Although there was one time...but that's another story.
What activities from your childhood live on in the annals of legend in your memories?
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