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first person

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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

When I was 12, I joined Scouts. Which might seem pretty normal, except that at that time it was more typical for girls to do Guiding. I had begged my parents to change me over to the local Scout troop because they spent way more time doing outdoor stuff. Camping, hiking and generally being outside appealed to me greatly, but it wasn’t something I was able to do with my family. My parents liked the outdoors well enough, as long as it involved a motor of some kind – fishing in our little tinny or the occasional drive to a scenic lookout – but the number of nights spent in a tent as a family I can count on one hand. My mom thought that a cheap motel was adventure enough!

With Scouts, I learned to use a compass and map, how to tie a trucker’s hitch, how to pack for a multiday canoe river trip and how to set up a tent in the dark, in the rain, on rocky, hilly terrain miles from the backcountry campsite we couldn’t quite seem to find with our map and compass skills. At age 15, we hiked the Chilkoot Trail in Alaska, which was when I bought my first sleeping bag.

It was a proper -20 C rated winter sleeping bag; a far cry from the flannel-lined Canadian-Tire special I’d been using. It was synthetic fill, so that it would still be warm when wet, and could compress down to fit into my backpacking pack alongside all of my other gear. I was lucky that some of my fellow Scouts’ sisters got roped into the 10-day trip, so I wouldn’t be alone in my tent (as I had been for every other trip we had done). Kate and Natalie were my compatriots as we climbed the Chilkoot pass, passing from Alaska into the Yukon in low cloud and heavy rain. I remember well snuggling deep into that warm sleeping bag, insulating sore muscles from the drumming rain on our tent in the high and cold places where we camped.

As we got older, a few friends from Scouts and I started doing more trips together. We went up to the Wapta Icefield, camping on the shoulder of a glacier where the temperature dropped to below -30 C. A raven raided our food, stashed in a tent vestibule while we summited Mount Olive. We spent the twilight hours collecting errant tortellini that the raven had dropped, cobbling together enough to make a weak soup. My sleeping bag wasn’t enough to keep me warm that night, listening to my grumbling stomach, howling wind and occasional avalanche in the distance, I shivered in a fitful sleep between Andrew and Scott.

Andrew and I became leaders for the next generation of Scouts. During an eventful canoe down the North Saskatchewan River, the Devil’s Elbow rapid claimed one canoe from our group – after we fished them out of the glacial water, my sleeping bag helped warm them back up. We hiked the East Coast Trail, 10 days along the coast of Newfoundland; eerie white fog fingers snatching at our legs as we walked on miles of boardwalk. When Andrew and I got married, our honeymoon was a trek up Mount Kilimanjaro and I remember well snuggling into that same sleeping bag as we caught a few hours of fitful sleep at our final camp before pushing for the 6,000-metre-high summit. We have a rather unromantic photo of us awkwardly kissing with down coats and balaclavas at the highest point in Africa.

That same sleeping bag kept my eight-week-old daughter warm when we went on our first post-baby backpacking trip, a short two-kilometre walk to Elbow Lake campground in the mountains of Alberta. When we were three-months pregnant with our second child, we managed to finagle a week of babysitting from the grandparents for our daughter and helicoptered into a backcountry ski hut, spending seven days skiing. We had a blast, even though one particularly awful day of morning sickness kept me inside. I spent that day curled in my sleeping bag in between short laps on a gentle slope by the hut.

Now Andrew and I have three kids, using hand-me-down sleeping bags (including that one from my Alaska trip – still going strong). Last summer we did the Lakelands Canoe Circuit, paddling with another family through beautiful remote lakes to camp at white-sand beaches. Our tent took a beating in a windstorm that might have been a tornado, ripping almost in half, but everyone was okay. I was definitely grasping at the edges of survival training and experience garnered from a lifetime of adventures outdoors for that one; thankfully we found a spot to shelter away from the falling trees and crashing waves. Once the storm blew over, the evening air was crisp and clean and we snuggled down into our sleeping bags, my daughter in that old Alaska one, relieved that no one was hurt.

When my 12-year-old daughter asked to join the local Scout group it was a full-circle moment. She had seen Scouts doing fire lighting and hatchet skills in the park near our house and wanted to do more of what we do as a family with kids her own age. She recently went winter camping with her troop and stayed in a tent by herself (I know the loneliness of being the only girl in the group). It’s a bit amazing that my old sleeping bag – bought 25 years ago for a Scouting backpacking trip to Alaska – now keeps my daughter cozy through a cold winter night with her Scout group.

When I think of her snuggled deep in that sleeping bag, with the snow tic-tic-ticking against the side of the tent, her breath frozen in the air while the exertion of the day finally begins to fade, I hope that her adventures always lead her to somewhere warm, dry and safe in the end.

Teresa Waddington lives in Calgary.

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