No, it’s not winter anymore- but on March 19 it was, and on March 19 I spent the night outside. It was -10° Celsius that night and a little breezy, and there was still no shortage of snow on the ground; leftover from what was a very enthusiastic winter. I should say, this event wasn’t a mistake; I did it by choice, and I feel I had valid reason for doing it!
As a writer, it’s my duty to be well-informed about my subjects; along these lines, one of Mark Twain’s most famous quotes is write what you know. And although I’m not about to join the army in order to conduct research for my work, I do like to do as much as I can to understand the lives and plight of my characters. My next novel, which I hope to begin writing before the year is up, deals with Soviet soldiers in the winter of 1941-42– and so, I decided that sleeping outside in the winter would be a wonderful way to put myself in their shoes!
I suppose I would look something like this if I had been a Red Army soldier in World War II
My family was skeptical about my plan- in fact, my brother even suggested placing bets on how long I would last outside. But I was determined, and when I get something into my head it won’t easily leave! Throughout my preparations (as well as during the frigid night), I kept telling myself that if both German and Soviet soldiers could endure combat in temperatures worse than this, then I could certainly manage one night.
I made sure that my preparations were extensive, although I also saw that my supplies and surroundings were nowhere near luxurious. I wasn’t looking to have an enjoyable night, just an enriching one. So I gathered my ushanka, an old RCAF coat, a Canadian field shirt, and my grandmother’s muskrat coat; these things seemed warm enough but also authentic enough for my ordeal.
My outfit for the evening
I also prepared by doing some reading- last year at a British expat event, of all things, I picked up two vintage military survival books! One is from the British Ministry of Defence, and the other is a much more specific arctic survival book from the Canadian Forces in the 1970s. There’s a notice on the front of the latter that its information is restricted and classified- well, formerly restricted and classified now! In these books I found lots of valuable information on how to construct and choose shelters and how to remain healthy and avoid frostbite and hypothermia in cold temperatures. I’ve had hypothermia before, and I didn’t want to repeat that!
The two intriguing publications which imparted much wisdom
Instructions on how to utilize an effective snow wall
Before the light had all vanished, I filled an ammo box with some survival supplies (like a flashlight and multitool, just to be safe); and filled a thermos with hot tea. Tea was always enjoyed by Soviet soldiers in the field and at home, and I knew it would be a comfort to me during my freezing night.
My tea and box of supplies
Using knowledge of natural shelter and wind direction gleaned from my survival books, I made camp at the side of my house. I hoped that the concrete foundation would offer some ambient heat leftover from the afternoon sun, and that the wind wouldn’t be so fierce there. My camp consisted of a tarp on top of some hard, ridged snow; a carpet; a lumpy old sleeping bag; a wool blanket, and the aforementioned muskrat coat. I felt a little unhappy that it was likely more than Red Army soldiers had at the worst of times, but I must say I needed it! However, I did refuse the suggestion of a tent.
My lovely little camp
With all that in place, I began my ordeal at about 10:30; feeling quite eager and not at all apprehensive- even though I feel the cold quite keenly! As soon as I was in my sleeping bag, looking up at the clear sky, I felt such an atmosphere of peace. There was one star right above me, and everything was quiet- I do live on a very small street, but this was really quiet! I thought about my novels and my characters as I fell asleep, and at the start I was nice and warm. But after about an hour I was awakened by the sound of the tarp rustling in the brisk wind, and I began to feel the cold.
The wool blanket and muskrat coat were a blessing, but it was the frozen ground beneath me that was the problem. The cold soon seeped right into my back, and the rest of the night was almost sleepless and very unpleasant. But at least I had things to think about- mainly, I commiserated with those soldiers from long ago; and rued the thought of putting my characters into such nasty conditions! A strange thing to note was that, in the cold, my knees began to hurt. I have bad knees from years of ice hockey, and they quickly started to ache and throb during the night. It made the experience that much more uncomfortable!
By 04:00, I was restless and wished the night could be over! I knew I was never going to get back to sleep, but I decided to wait until 05:00 anyway- 05:00 was generally when the Red Army day began. Finally it came, and I trudged inside with a shivery gait; deeply uncomfortable but also incredibly satisfied. And that was my winter ordeal! Once my family was awake, I told them with pride how well I had lasted; and I have a new appreciation and understanding for the Soviet soldier’s life in World War II. Although everyone now thinks I’m crazy, it’s worth it; and although I was colder than I’ve been for years, that was worth it too. With this crazy yet fulfilling experience behind me, I can’t wait to get started on my next book!