A bitter northeastern wind howls straight into the front of the teepee as I fumble to start a fire with freezing cold fingers. Somehow, we get a smouldering fire going but the same minus- 22-degree-Celsius gale that’s blowing our door open, has pressed the smoke flaps over the opening, essentially sealing the top shut.
words & photography :: Mason Mashon
The correct way to raise a teepee is with the back set against the prevailing wind so the windflaps create a vacuum that draws the air/smoke up and out of the structure. North winds are rare in the Sea to Sky so a week prior, in good weather, I set everything up while considering our dominant weather patterns, but now it’s apparently backwards. It’s too late though; the poles are already frozen into the snow with no chance to reorient the canvas in this wind.
Instead, we’re asphyxiating, everything is frozen (including us) and we’re about to face the coldest night by far that I’ve ever spent camping out. What are we doing? Surviving, learning, and absolutely freezing.
We awake to find everything buried. My snowmobile is almost invisible.
The teepee is a tried and true design. For millennia, the nomadic Plains Cree First Nations used this type of shelter to travel and follow the buffalo herds. I come from Cree heritage on my father’s side, so culturally and practically, the teepee was an obvious direction for me to go when I found myself looking for a portable lodge. But rather than following buffalo to feed my family, I’m chasing perfect pow, ideal riding conditions and a transportable shelter to house my creative mind. I want nothing more than to wake up with an incredible view, and ride right out of my own personal backcountry lodge.
My idea with the teepee is to collect and strategically store sets of poles in my favourite places to camp. Then I’ll just show up with the canvas, raise the poles, and build my home. I typically harvest standing, dead, lodgepole pine trees, as they tend to be dried and cured, making for easy preparation. Harvesting poles is an important process, and one must choose wisely. Slim and straight is ideal, after all, they are the foundation of a home. For this set up I’ve chosen particularly large poles to withstand strong winds.
The teepee doesn’t feel like a home without visitors. My girlfriend Diane wakes sometime around midnight, “There’s someone outside.” In my frozen state of waking confusion, I realize it’s our good friend Rory “Bushy” Bushfield and his adventure dog Dextor. I also realize that there is heavy snowfall coming in through the teepee’s smoke holes. Bushy comes in and hunkers down for the remainder of a cold night. It’s puking outside, and I still can’t believe he made the 35-kilometre sled ride in the dark.
We awake to find everything buried. My snowmobile is almost invisible, Dex is literally swimming through powder. Bushy’s sled had gotten stuck on the way up in the night and he’d been forced to finish the journey on foot. It’s white out, bottomless, and almost too deep, but breaking trail is much easier going down than up and cold, dry pow billows over my handlebars as I descend to go dig out his ride. With his sled recovered, Bushy and I proceed to trench out a new ascent trail then hit bottomless runs until dark.
“I come from Cree heritage on my father’s side, so culturally and practically, the teepee was an obvious direction when looking for a portable lodge. But rather than following buffalo to feed my family, I’m chasing perfect pow.” – Mason Mashon
The next morning brings bluebird skies and beauty that is almost baffling. Overnight, the snow has settled into absolutely perfect pow-shredding conditions, literally right outside the teepee’s door. With pillows as far as the eye can see, we name the new zone ‘Burke’s Bumps’ after the late Sarah Burke and proceed to pump and pop our way down run after run. It feels like we are in the air more than we are on snow. It’s heaven and it’s exactly the kind of day I had dreamed to wake up to in my canvas mountain home.
The shift from powdery paradise to the devil’s wind tunnel comes quicker than expected. Once again, the ‘rare’ Arctic outflow surges from the North. Our firewood supply is questionable at best—wood pulled from under a logging slash pile that is not nearly as dry as we’d hoped. Wet wood and frigid temperatures mean our fire makes more smoke than heat, and the winds keep pushing that smoke right back down on us.
Even worse, our beer is as frozen as our water. Rory is ready to abort the mission and crawl into a snow cave but I convince him to stay. If we can withstand these harsh conditions, any night in the future will seem balmy by comparison. We give up on the fire, crawl into our feather down nests and curl up for what I now consider the coldest night I’ve ever spent outdoors.
This recent cold snap and windstorm have instilled my confidence in the design of the teepee. I feel like I can comfortably leave my temporary backcountry lodge unattended in the harsh weather conditions and I can return in the next storm knowing I will have a dry place to stay. As long as the wind isn’t howling from the northeast, I think I have my smoke flap angles pretty dialed. But probably not.
Part of a teepee’s charm is its temporal existence, much like the snow we ride. The teepee won’t stay in this spot much longer, as the days get longer we will move it deeper into the mountains, into higher terrain, and eventually return it to Alaska in the spring. Our time in the backcountry is also often limited, and accessing these remote places takes a lot of time and energy. So when the conditions are firing, what better plan than to strategically post up and ride it out?
As intended, this lodge is facilitating a closer relationship to the land, and a deeper connection with the places we consider sacred. It makes me inherently happy.
Thank you, Squamish Nation, for having us on your traditional territory.
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