A Winter Ordeal

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!

Winter Portrait

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.

Winter Ordeal Clothes

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!

Winter Ordeal Books

The two intriguing publications which imparted much wisdom

Winter Ordeal Diagram

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.

Winter Ordeal Canteen

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.

Winter Ordeal Site

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!



8 thoughts on “A Winter Ordeal

  1. Now, your next task is to go three weeks without bathing or changing your clothes. Sleep outside every night during that time. Perhaps not truly an authentic experience for a Russian soldier, but the experience of one my uncles who fought in the Battle of the Bulge. Build a fire if you get cold; have a friend come by with a vehicle so you can warm you hands on the engine.

    • Now that would be an intense experience!! I’ll have to consider that for this summer- I’m not sure I could manage in anything but the summer heat! And I pity your uncle. That must have been horrible.

  2. Hello again Adair,

    I apologize. I think I hit the ‘Post’ button too soon. I started to leave you a comment (it was nearly done), and I believe you should now have it to consider for moderation.

    If by chance, my comment did not reach you, do please let me know so that I might tell you what I thought of your piece. (That way too, you needn’t feel compelled to publish this comment, as it will likely not make much sense to anyone, including you).

    From here, I will simply continue where I left off: …realistic, and they put the reader right in your place.

    Finally, I think the manuals you used were marvelous. What terrific finds to help you bring the past to life with some practical advice.

    Also, I for one, do not think you are crazy. I think you are a dedicated and caring writer who goes above and beyond to understand their subject matter. Truly admirable! Thank you for sharing this post with us.

    I hope this message finds you well.

    All my best to you,
    p.s. Great photos of your experience too!

    • Hi Marcella,
      Thank you for your words, they were so kind and touching that I hardly know what to say in reply! I’m delighted that you enjoyed my post and saw some merit in it. And I’m glad you don’t think I’m crazy- that’s nice to hear for once 🙂 Thank you so much once again, I really can’t say how amazed and grateful your comment left me! I trust you had an enjoyable long weekend, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the week!
      Most sincerely,

  3. Hello Adair,

    Well, I can see now that my last comment above published immediately (and is not awaiting moderation), which means that my original comment did not in fact reach you, so I will write it again. Coupled with the one published above, it should make sense.

    I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed reading your post. I too agree quite strongly with the “write what you know” principle, and I can think of no better way to get acquainted with your new subject matter than by spending a night out in the cold of winter before it disappears.

    I love the fact that you utilized your grandmother’s muskrat coat! I am sentimental, and I so value those objects left to us by our loved ones, and it is special when we can put them to good use.

    Your descriptions of the early morning hours and the way in which the cold, frigid ground relentlessly prohibited sleep, were… (This is where my comment was cut off). It is continued in the comment above. Take care. Marcella

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