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For photographer Joel Rodriguez, winter camping is an unexpected yet vital chapter that has helped him befriend Canadian winters

Growing up in a Latin immigrant household, I wasn’t always familiar with the experience of camping. But when friends invited me to try it in the distinctively hostile winter landscape of the Canadian Shield, I was curious enough to accept.

Since that trip four years ago, camping has become an annual tradition that has redefined my relationship with Canadian winters. Each time is like a pilgrimage, a deliberate immersion in the elements, allowing me to explore the vast expanses of Ontario, the province I call home. This year, I helped guide others as they experienced winter camping for the first time, leading the pack through the Killarney-French River area on Georgian Bay, bordering the southern limits of the Canadian Shield.

From left, Ryan Bellaire, Nate MacKinnon, and Dan Ebata process a dead pine tree they've cut down, dividing it into segments for easy transport back to camp.
Nate MacKinnon holds a handful of birch bark, an excellent natural fire starter thanks to its oily sap.
Dan Ebata, Ryan Bellaire, Nate MacKinnon and Shelly Woodside, lug the firewood they collected back to camp.

The exposed bedrock that’s a distinctive feature of much of northeastern Canada creates a preserved wilderness, resisting human intrusion and serving as a guide to a world beyond the confines of city life. As we trek in each year, there’s a reciprocal relationship with nature; we aim to move with the same effortless grace as the raven wheeling above us. The challenging 2.5-kilometre hike-in with our hefty backpacks serves as a reminder that the solace and silence we seek amidst the Shield’s expanse come at a cost, but like the raven, we press on, taking turns dragging a sled of gear, putting in the hard work to glide within the environment.

Staying warm means keeping active. At the campsite, we stay busy collecting firewood, preparing meals and taking short hikes. After some time, an attachment to the landscape develops. The hovering coniferous trees that encircle our camp and the light snowfall that accompany us through the day make us feel as though we are not alone. I think sometimes if we were to sit and soak in the silence of the landscape, there would be something to be heard, and yet I feel as though we’d always be at a loss for words of what to say back.

Together, Dan Ebata (left) and Ryan Bellaire prepare a hearty meal of chili over the campfire, understanding the need for substantial calories in the cold.
Sky, a Belgian Malinois, stands guard as dinner is cooked at the campsite. Camping with a dog can deter certain animals, as their natural scent marks territory and acts as a deterrent to wildlife.

The most alluring part of winter camping is the retreat to the basics. You get a chance to sit by the fire, think, chat and catch up with friends. When your speaker dies owing to the cold, it feels as though the elements are forcing you to embrace the quiet, to stare into the raging fire and think, am I hungry? Should I boil more water? Maybe I should just sit still. It’s not just about braving the cold; it’s a journey into simplicity, into our primal instincts.

Nights, we put out the fire and tuck into our two-person tents in ultrawarm sleeping bags, some of us still in snow pants and jackets, pocket-sized toe warmers in our socks.

Every year I feel an urge to carve away the bark on a log, to sleep in the woods, to eat steak cooked over a fire as I warm up my boots and socks. I need this reminder to slow down, to pay attention to my body and to my surrounding company. I hope to continue exploring the barren landscape of the Canadian Shield as the years go by, establishing a deeper connection to home and knowing there is yet so much of it I have yet to explore.

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The group warms up by the fire, watching the flames on their last night in camp. They aim to use up most of their firewood, making the most of their final evening in the boreal forest of the Canadian Shield.

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Ryan Bellaire walks across Ruth Lake as light snow falls, with temperatures reaching -12 degrees at night.

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