“I do not want to read in tomorrow’s newspapers – an Indian found dead in hills of Bromont. Gaurav, trust me this doesn’t sound a good idea. I will say while reading, I warned this guy on Christmas eve but he didn’t listen.”
Snow-clad streets of Montreal, 6 degrees below freezing, windy and my first white Christmas eve. Everyone on table explode in laughter as Leslie suggests my idea of Vision Quest in winter is a bad idea. I plan to spend 48 hours in wild, with no food, no water, no shelter, exposed to forces of nature in extreme Canadian winter. Temperature is expected to fall colder than 20 degrees below freezing, and winds in hilly woods of Bromont are unforgiving. Strong winds and heavy snowfall is expected that may become freezing rain. If I lack proper gear, I will get frostbitten in mere 20 minutes for third time in one month. I can afford no half measures. This is my life’s first ever winter and I plan to make a bushcraft shelter – dig a snow grave, cover with wood-branches-leaves, block winds by more wood and sleep in my bivvy sac and sleeping bag. I will observe noble silence for whole time, and will not communicate with anyone.
I’m at Iva and Frederic’s home for Christmas meal with a fellow researcher from UQAM. I do not know anyone there, this is our first meeting. This is also Day 42 of living “Under Two Dollars a Day” challenge; so it’s the night of feast. Past 42 days had been tough, that included lot of suffering, struggle and soulful insights. I’d draw any random number from 0 to 3 every morning in a roll, that defines the budget for that day. There had been good days where I get back to back 3’s, and the days when I scored four 0’s in a row. But, there’s a clause; total of 49 days should not exceed $90. In past 20 days, there had been three or more back to back nights, when I have slept without food and good number of mid-day meals comprised only cheap ramen noodles. Else, I wait for Sundays to grab deals on Jean-Talon Market leftovers. With all that struggle, I’ve saved enough money to pay for the 90 km long rideshare to Bromont, but I will hitchhike my way back to Montreal. Details into that challenge is a different story.
After conversation with Leslie and others, I decide to switch from bushcraft shelter to a proper tent and better quality sleeping bag, that I’d borrow from a friend and will camp from December 25th through 27th in the woods of my friend’s backyard. I leave from Montreal late in the gloomy morning and walk 14 km further after end of rideshare to reach my host, Andree-Anne’s home. Pat, her boyfriend, shows around his sugar-shack workshop where he filters maple syrup in Spring and also introduces me to his two giant-calm-friendly dogs Basko (a labrador and bouvier bernois mix) and Nanouk (a labrador and berger belge mix) and two notorious cats. I haven’t met gentle dogs than these two, but I have a thing for friendly dogs. Their over-friendly behaviour scares the crap out of me.
“Our home always stays open, entry is through workshop. Whenever you need anything, feel free to step in and make yourself comfortable. There is maple syrup and some juice in workshop, that I assume you will not want, but still. Camp downhill between lot of trees, so that they give you protection from winds. Nights get really cold. Are you sure you want to stay outside? You’re crazy my friend. Crazy friend from India. See you soon” Pat wishes me luck as I pick up my backpack with gear and leave for a 48 hour long quest to connect with my soul, discover what lies within, seek answers from nature and learn to survive with minimal of needs. Basko needs no invitation, he follows. He patrols whole 60 acres of land at least twice a day, in all weather conditions and keep it protected from other potential predators.
Meanwhile, I begin my solitary exile in Bromont by pitching my tent, dump my bag inside of it, and set out to explore the huge hilly backyard. The temperature outside is -15C, so during the walk, I collect wood to start the fire to keep some warm. Everything is very cold and frozen. My last meal was last night at Iva’s and since then I’ve had just a few cups of water and coffee. To keep warm, body needs fuel that I won’t provide for next 48 hours. Fire seems to be the last option. It gets dark by 5 pm, and after struggle of over 30 minutes, the only thing I successfully burnt is my left glove. Temperature is undergoing a free fall, and I have no fire. For some reason, I’m wearing my trail running shoes that are not waterproof, hence my socks are wet. Last night, Fred was narrating an incident when he camped with his friends some years ago, his shoe was frozen solid and he could not wear it. I think, I’ve fallen to the same trap.
The snow under my feet is soft and at least 2 feet deep. This is my first night ever outdoors, exposed in snow with no fire. However, I have spent couple of nights in my other milder sleeping bag on terrace and Mont Royal with no other supporting shelter, and I am aware, when cold I can’t sleep. With no light source from anywhere but my headlamp, I slip in my sleeping and meditate in tent as thirst and hunger begin to kick in, and I do not see any respite. On past two occasions, I got frostnip on my left hand. Talk of irony, in attempt of starting fire with cold-wet wood, I burnt up two fingers of my left glove in first three hours. Sweet! Only, 43 more hours to go. Moreover, I’m not carrying any timing device. Thus, once sun has set, I have no awareness of space and time. I am lost in literal terms, and that is one scary feeling. Perhaps, what I wanted to experience through this Vision Quest where I have truly surrendered myself to nature in all possible dimensions and attempt to dive within.
Through a major part of past two years, my learning has largely been experiential; wherein, I unlearn the written texts and develop wisdom through experiences, that are mine. Amid all this, I recall Buddha’s words “On life’s journey, faith is nourishment, virtuous deeds are a shelter, wisdom is the light by day and right mindfulness is the protection by night. If a man lives a pure life nothing can destroy him. If he has conquered greed nothing can limit his freedom.” Here, I realize I’ve subconsciously given myself a chance, to experience it.
After what seem like a few hours, I decide to sleep. However, still hanging in semi-meditative phase, I’ve lost the sense of reality. I don’t know if I am sleeping or still awake. I’m lying in my sleeping, focussing on my breath. Near my head, are my socks and shoes. They were frozen solid in matter of 30 seconds when I removed them, and now I’ve got to pee. Under dim light of headlamp, I try to put them on, but I fail. If I try any harder, I fear it might just break. I slide open the zipper of my tent just tiny bit, and large mass of very cold winds gush in to freeze the last warm corner of my sleeping bag near my feet. I stretch out my pelvis, do my thing in the vestibule and slide back in comfort of sleeping bag.
I’m reasonably warm on top, but my feet are still freezing. So, I try changing my feet position every other minute to find some position where they can feel some heat. I hear a voice in my head, that suggests me a new position every other minute, and I follow the instruction in an attempt to catch some sleep. 102 positions later (yes, I was counting as well) I give up on further attempts and just keep lying in the sleeping bag in wait to pass-out somehow. Suddenly, I feel something scratching on nylon wall of my tent. Scared, what it could be, I keep lying in tent and roll myself up in a ball, seeking support from mother nature as if I’m in womb, waiting to set self afree.
Slowly, the wall gets brighter and someone walks past twitching the ropes of my tent. They are more. I think, three. I gather courage to slide the zipper, open my tent to sneak a peek, what’s there. What I see, is something I’ve never imagined or dreamed. I pinch myself twice to check if I’m hallucinating or is it real? Indeed, that’s real.
Pictures Courtesy (Basko and Nanouk): Andrée-Anne Lassonde