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When your daring will not do

Ed English shows how to dig a snow cave in Gros Morne National Park.
Ed English shows how to dig a snow cave in Gros Morne National Park. (Kari Bodnarchuk for The Boston Globe)
Email|Print| Text size + By Kari Bodnarchuk
Globe Correspondent / February 24, 2008

BAKERS BROOK POND - My sense of adventure has led me to some of the world's most remote areas. And my lack of survival skills has, at times, reduced the odds that I would return.

I've been sucked out to sea by a riptide, caught in a flash flood in a jungle, and gotten lost during a blizzard. Once, on a winter camping trip on a desolate, wind-scoured ridge, I fell into a tree well, a pocket of air trapped beneath snow around the trunk of a tree, and escaped only because a fellow hiker yanked me out.

After so many close calls, I decided a little backcountry education couldn't hurt, so I signed up for a wilderness survival course in Gros Morne National Park on Newfoundland's west coast. Here creeping juniper clings to the ground, and battering winter winds have sculpted the stunted tamarack trees. In this unforgiving landscape, icefalls cling to 2,000-foot cliffs; the local residents include black bears, coyotes, and moose; and it's not uncommon to be the only person around for miles.

Each winter, Ed English, owner of the adventure tour company Explore Newfoundland, runs multiday trips into this vast wilderness where he teaches survival courses. He is certified in Red Cross wilderness and remote first aid and has even traveled up to Labrador to train the Inuit in winter safety and survival. English was my guide on a kayaking trip around icebergs off northern New foundland a few years ago, so I trusted him completely. This time, my friend Peggy from Vermont was joining me on my adventure.

Our plan was to ski five miles to the mouth of a remote fiord, then spend two days learning how to build snow shelters, navigate in the wilderness, and cope with emergencies. We would also have a chance to explore the fiord and surrounding mountains, which lie at the northern end of the Appalachian range.

At the trailhead in Gros Morne, we shouldered our 35-pound packs, clipped into our skis, and began a steady ascent up Berry Hill with views of the Gulf of St. Lawrence to our left and the snow-covered Long Range Mountains ahead.

I felt confident at first as we crossed relatively level, open fields where the sun-baked, crunchy snow held firm underfoot and the only obstacles were scraggly little bushes that we could easily navigate. But then we wound into a dense forest of black spruce and fir, where our skis disappeared beneath a foot of sticky powder and every step was hard work.

Here, we encountered several snow-covered bridges over a flowing brook that were only a foot and a half wide and had steep drop-offs on either side. At the first bridge, I dangled my arms outward for balance and inched forward until I reached a big dip at the end of the snowy hump. I froze. The only way across was to lunge forward over the dip - a good 3-foot leap of faith - and land on my skis on the other side. If I missed, I would either slip sideways and plunge into the icy water or slide backward and land in a snow-angel position, probably breaking a ski if not a leg in the process.

"What would happen if I really hurt myself?" I asked English, trying to stall.

"That depends on your injury," he said, explaining that if I broke my arm, he could make a splint out of a tree branch and I would probably be able to ski out. If I broke a leg or had a spinal injury, he would use his satellite phone to call for help and rescue crews would transport me out by snowmobile or helicopter. I was unnerved knowing that we were probably the only skiers in the 458,000-acre park that day (Gros Morne measures about two-thirds the size of Rhode Island) and that the closest person was miles away.

English finally coaxed me along. I leapt over the snowy gulch, my heavy pack helping to propel me forward and clear the ditch. Peggy took her time and followed right behind me. At other dips along the trail, we were able to sidestep down one slope and back up the other.

Just two moderately steep hills stood between us and our destination, and I admit I whooped, hollered, and laughed all the way down both, landing at the bottom of one with a perfect face plant.

Adding to the trickiness of the terrain was the possibility of encountering caribou, coyotes, fox, black bears, even a one-ton moose.

"It's not unusual to see bears when we're out spring skiing," said English, "If you do run into one, just make sure it's aware of you and that you're not doing anything to threaten it," like cornering it or passing in between a mother and its cub.

It would have been a thrill to see a moose or a bear, but all I could imagine was the animal mistaking my flailing, uncontrolled descent as a taunt.

We did spot several moose and fox tracks en route, but the most welcome tracks we encountered were left by snowmobiles. They created a nicely packed trail that led us to the mouth of Bakers Brook Pond Fiord, where we would spend the night. This landlocked, glaciated fiord stretched another 10 miles into the wilderness and was 400 feet at its deepest point.

We pulled our collapsible shovels out of our packs and set to work building snow caves, which can be used as emergency shelters. We each made a snow mound and then hollowed it out to create a horizontal tunnel.

"You want to tunnel in and up," English explained. "The top of your door should be below your sleeping platform because hot air rises, so it will be warmer where you're sleeping. Once you're inside," he said, "you can use a bunch of branches and snow to make the door smaller or use your pack as a plug to cork it up. That will keep the heat in."

I'm not wild about small spaces, so I gave my shelter a cathedral ceiling and, despite English's advice, an opening wide enough for French doors.

"I feel like I'm digging my grave," Peggy called out from her snowy rabbit hole.

Then we set to work on finishing touches: Peggy added a shelf for her watch and glasses, and I made a snow pillow. We were supposed to spend the night in these shelters, but temptation sat just 30 feet away in the form of a two-story wooden hut with a sleeping loft, a flush toilet, and a wood stove with plenty of firewood. Its kitchen had two propane stoves, an oven, gas-powered lights, and even dish towels.

We used the hut to cook dinner and warm up by the fire, but remained committed to sleeping in our caves.

"Cover up the door, and it will get toasty," English said to Peggy as she crawled into hers.

"If I plug that up, my blood pressure will go up, and I'll need an Ambien and some rum to sleep," she replied.

Meanwhile, I had discovered my cave's fatal flaw: It was too short. I had been able to stretch out in it with room to spare earlier, but come bedtime, I discovered that my camping mattress wouldn't fit. I tried wedging it in at different angles. I could have spent time hollowing out more space, but I didn't want to become overheated before bed. And, I was chickening out. I would have stayed there in an emergency, but instead decided to sleep in a tent I had brought with me.

Brave Peggy, on the other hand, lasted about an hour in her shelter before scrambling into the hut for the night.

I listened for coyotes as I tried to fall asleep, but heard only the howling of the wind as it whipped through the trees. I took comfort in knowing others were nearby, but wondered whether they would hear my screams if I were in trouble.

That night I slept with a hat, gloves, and down jacket on, inside my down sleeping bag, on a thick camping mattress, and stayed nice and toasty when the temperature dipped to 12 degrees Fahrenheit. By morning, though, my wooly hat, sleeping bag, and the inner walls of my tent were covered in frost from condensation, and it took hours for my tent and bedding to dry out, even under sunny skies.

"You wouldn't have had that problem in your snow shelter," English said, explaining that there is less condensation in the shelter because it's warmer, and that moisture typically runs down the walls rather than dripping from the ceiling.

English fired up a stove in the hut and made us a traditional Newfoundland breakfast of Canadian bacon and toutons, dense rolls that are fried in a pan with the bacon and then smothered in molasses.

"This is the equivalent of two loaves of bread," he said of the batch of toutons we devoured.

Over breakfast, we discussed trip preparation and equipment. My survival gear included lots of warm layers, an ultraviolet water purifier, and a first-aid kit that had Band-Aids, Neosporin, Advil, tweezers, rope, a compass, duct tape, and blister products. English's kit, on the other hand, had the usual first-aid items, plus flares, a military strobe, a fishing kit, snare wire for catching small animals, and a mini blowtorch he has used to fix kayaks and cross-country ski poles.

Add to that a shiny compact disc for signaling planes, syringes, and orange flagging tape, which can be tied to trees so that you can retrace your steps and so that search-and-rescue crews can better track you. But a few things really caught our eyes: a packet of Jell-O, a package of Pringles, and a cube from an egg carton that was full of dryer lint and wax.

"When you're a biological ice box and have gone into hypothermia, your stomach shuts down and can't digest anything," English explained. "But if you dilute Jell-O, your stomach can still absorb it so you get the quick hit from the sugar and the long-term benefits of the protein."

The Pringles and the dryer lint, it turned out, were prime fire-starting materials.

"Any potato chips will work because of the oil in them," English said.

Outside the hut, nestled at the edge of a spruce and fir forest, English built a campfire on top of the snow and used a Pringle to set it ablaze. As he explained how to find dry wood in a wet environment, we were visited by a snowshoe hare, so called because it has big paws that enable it to walk across the snow. While the fire started smoking, English explained how to make a meal out of a porcupine.

"All you have to do is walk up to it and whack it with a stick," he said, "and then roll it in mud and throw it in the fire to bake."

"So how do you know when it's done?" I asked.

"When you start pulling it apart, the hide will come off with the mud," he said. "But it's like a lot of other types of meat, you can also eat it raw. If I'm in the backcountry starving, I'm not going to be worried about eating raw meat."

I hoped I would never be so desperate, since the only raw things I like to eat are sushi and cookie dough.

Before heading back to civilization, we spent the day exploring the fiord, where the wind had created corduroy-like snow ridges on the pond's frozen surface. Occasionally, we heard a raven's call or the sound of water dripping off an icefall on a rocky cliff. The musty smell of tannin from the melting icicles filled the air. I could probably drink that melt-water in a bind, I thought, and there's probably some good dry tinder and firewood in the surrounding trees.

For my next adventure I hope I won't have to snuff out a porcupine or sleep in a snow cave, but I am better prepared for whatever nature sends my way.

Kari Bodnarchuk, a freelance writer and photographer, can be reached at travelwriter@karib.us.

If You Go

Getting there

Air Canada flies from Boston to Deer Lake, Newfoundland. Gros Morne National Park is about a 30-minute drive from Deer Lake.

What to do

Explore Newfoundland 21 Dogwood Drive Steady Brook 877-497-5673 explorenewfoundland.com Wilderness survival camp on demand for $500 per person, including airport shuttle, transportation, three nights' accommodation, three days' meals, snowshoe or cross-country ski rentals, park passes, and, upon request, gear.

Marble Mountain Resort
888-462-7253
skimarble.com
About 10 minutes north of Corner Brook, has 34 runs, a terrain park, and a half pipe. Uncrowded and reasonably priced. Full/half-day lift tickets: adults $47/$33, students and seniors $35/$23, children ages 5-12 $23/$17.

Blomidon Cat Skiing Benoits Cove
709-783-2712
catskiing.net
Runs backcountry Cat-skiing trips for intermediate to advanced skiers/snowboarders in the aptly named Blow-Me-Down Mountains about 37 miles west of Corner Brook. Best time to go is March and April. Cost: $273 per person includes full-day skiing, guide, avalanche transceiver, fat skis, and lunch.

Blow-Me-Down
Cross Country Ski Park Corner Brook
709-639-2754
blowmedown.ca
Offers ski rentals and has miles of trails to explore. Daily rates: $10 pass, $10 ski rentals.

Where to stay

Marble Inn Resort
21 Dogwood Drive
877-497-5673
marbleinn.com
Nine rooms in the main lodge and one- to four-bedroom cabins. Single and double rooms $109-$129, cabins $99-$299.

Humber Valley Resort
2 Clubhouse Hill, between Corner Brook and Deer Lake
866-686-8100
humbervalley.com
One-room accommodations to five-bedroom chalets, plus an Aveda spa, two restaurants, and outdoor activities. Two-night minimum $120-$1,030.

Where to eat

Sorrento Pizza, Pasta and Grill
18 Park St., Corner Brook
709-639-3555
Organic steaks, fresh pasta dishes. Entrees $10-$26.

Madison's Grill
Marble Inn Resort
877-497-5673
Vegetarian stir-fries and steak dishes. Entrees $12-$27.

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