Much as I love the outdoors, all my senses rebel against the prospect of spending a mid-winter night outside, far from my warm bed and cosy fireplace, shivering under icy stars and sheltering from pitiless winds.
But a night in a “yurt” in the depth of winter: that sounds almost romantic! That sounds heroic, in fact; an opportunity to step outside your comfort zone (literally) into the foreign country of the forest at night.
That haunted darkness, that sterilizing cold. Those fresh coyote tracks?
The romance – and that alone – is why I overcame my strong survival instinct to venture into Quebec’s Gatineau Park with four intrepid, admirably well-provisioned friends during a recent January thaw.
The good news: unlike Scott of Antarctica, we didn’t perish. Our yurt wasn’t exactly the North Pole Hilton, but it was bright, clean, dry and – until sometime in the dark of night – warm to the point of stifling. By morning, with the fire long dead, it was frigid. Fortunately, we weren’t sleeping on frozen, lumpy ground in a flimsy nylon tent, but in comfortable bunks inside a circular, domed structure with hardwood floors. We cooked, not around a struggling fire on desolate, windswept tundra, but on two propane burners and a wood stove. We ate at a proper table. Nor did we fashion a primitive toilet from ice blocks. Instead, we scampered 150 metres to the nearby outhouse. Even in this mild winter, it is an unwelcome excursion, but excellent interval training for those contemplating marathons.
The contemporary yurt – there are four in the Lac Philippe area, still available for overnight rentals during the week – is only distantly related to its central Asian ancestor. The originals were circular, easily transportable, hut-like structures used by Turkic nomads on the Central Asian steppes. They’re made of flexible wooden lattices wrapped in sheep felt – not to be confused with similar Mongolian structures called gers. (A night in a ger sounds, to me, like a punishment of some kind.)
No ruminants are harmed in the construction of the modern yurt, pioneered on this continent by the Oregon parks department in 1993. The high-tech Gatineau Park model sleeps six, is clad in heavy rubber and offers wood stoves, windows and charming central skylights through which you can follow the movement of the heavenly bodies. Two have fridges (not entirely necessary) and ultraconvenient propane burners.
They rent for $150 a night on weekends; $100 on weekdays. There are cabins for rent, too, some that can accommodate groups, and winter camping sites for the seriously hardy.
For the rest of us, for weekend explorers, the primary challenge is getting your food and gear to the yurt. They are located between three to 13 kilometres from the closest parking lot, P19, and require hauling, or carrying, supplies on skis or snowshoes. (The most remote, at Lac Richard, can also be reached from Eardley Road, a mere four kilometres away, but the parking area is small and unpatrolled.
My group used pulks – a hardplastic, Nordic-inspired sled attached by straps and lightweight poles to a waist harness. These resourceful friends not only brought pulks, they built them, in the pioneering spirit of Scott and the rest, using ingenuity and Canadian Tire hardware. The professional version, intended for more ambitious expeditions, cost more than $500, which may explain the lively online discussions on how to fashion the most functional sled for the least expense.
You can also arrange with the National Capital Commission to have your gear transported, but it will cost $55 to $160 – each way! – depending on your destination. A sled is a much better option.
We saved on weight by pre-ordering 18 litres of water, delivered by park staff for $38 to $55, depending on the yurt. Firewood is provided. So are rudimentary pots and pans. But that still left sleeping bags, clothes, food – including heavy items like milk and carrot cake – not to mention spare footwear, musical instruments (we saw one young man pulling his guitar), extra cookware and your own dishes.
Check-in is 2 p.m., which leaves time for a pre-dinner ski or snowshoe on any of the mostly unchallenging trails in the Lac Philippe area. I ended up trudging five kilometres on foot into the yurt because it was raining when I set out. In a couple of hours, however, a wet snow changed everything and we skied alongside Taylor Lake into a dusk-grey blizzard, feeling alone in the slumbering forest.
It sounds like a lot of effort just to get beyond the reach of Wi-Fi, but that isn’t all you leave behind – there’s electricity, news updates, worthy hardcover biographies (too heavy), and all the maddening distractions of daily life.
In return, you are presented with an irresistible invitation to step right into nature, to ski under the stars, snowshoe into the back woods, share with friends communal dinners, card games, impromptu concerts, poetry recitations, all the unplugged amusements of an earlier time.
But remember not to stoke the wood stove too much before bed; the intractable physics of the yurt means hot air will rise, rendering the upper bunks almost tropical. Cold air will hug the floor, where someone is bound to be sleeping. The fire will die overnight. Bring a warm sleeping bag and hope that someone else volunteers to restart the fire in the morning.
Bring earplugs; snoring happens. Bring handy-wipes; hot water isn’t always available. Bring inside shoes. You’ll need a clothesline even if it isn’t raining.
If your idea of braving the elements is darting from the front door to the taxi, this is probably not your ideal getaway. But for un-abashed fans of winter, a night or two in a candlelit yurt, enveloped by silent forest, under a banner of bright stars, in the company of amiable friends, comprises the essence of cosy. So cosy, you forget how cold it is outside.
Susan Riley is a freelance political columnist who enjoys outdoor activities.
THE DIRT ON YURTS
There are four yurts available in the Lac Philippe area, two on Taylor Lake, one near Lac Philippe, and another in the farther reaches of the park, at Lac Richard.
The NCC starts taking reservations on Nov. 1, online or by phone, and weekends sell out quickly. This season, there are still weekday nights available, although during March break the four yurts (and four cabins) will be busy.
For reservations phone 819-827-2020, drop in at the Gatineau Park Visitor Centre at 33 Scott Road, in Chelsea, Que.
YURTS: (All $150 per night weekends; $100 weeknights.)
Ohomisi Yurt: Sleeps six, double propane burners, fridge, wood stove. Fivekilometre ski from P19.
Taylor Lake Yurt: Sleeps six, double propane burners, fridge, wood stove. Six-kilometre ski from P19.
Wanakiwin Yurt: Sleeps six, double propane burners, fridge, wood stove. A 6.5-kilometre ski, 5.5-km snowshoe from P19.
Lac Richard Yurt: Sleeps six. Wood stove. A 13-kilometre ski from P19; four kilometres from Eardley Road.
CABINS: Brown Lake cabin: $400 a night weekends; $280 weeknights. Sleeps 17.
Two-kilometre snowshoe, 2.5-km ski from P17.
Des Pins cabin: $150 a night weekends; $100 weeknights. Sleeps six. Three-kilometre ski, fourkm snowshoe from P19.
Lusk Lake cabin: Available only from 4 p.m. to 10 a.m. $150 a night weekends; $100 weeknights. Sleeps six. Sixkilometre ski from P19.
Philippe cabin: $250 a night weekends; $174 weeknights. Sleeps 10. Three-kilometre ski, 3.5 km snowshoe from P19.