Twenty years ago when I was more fit and more foolish I managed to convince my “partner” that we should fly from New York City to Yellowstone National Park to go winter camping. I had been captivated by an article in “Outside” magazine. The author had managed to find a hot spring in the Park that had just the right amount of run off to turn a geothermal pool into a perfect, core-heated hot tub. It looked positively idyllic. I did not know that ignorant adventurers often turn themselves into lobsters in such pools.

I had a pair of wide, wooden Nordic skis. She had nothing comparable so we went shopping in New York City. Surprisingly, we managed to track down a pair of wide fiberglass skis. I crammed all our gear into backpacks and we headed off to Montana.

We had booked the snow cat to get us into the Old Faithful Lodge, which stays open for snowmobilers and the handful of winter visitors who come in the cat.  It was a long, slow ride in to the Lodge.  We were planning on staying one night and skiing to the campsite the next day. Then an arctic front came in like a hurricane. The temperature dropped 60 degrees Fahrenheit in one day (Celsius -1 to -34.) and the Governor declared a state of emergency. When we approached the Ranger for our permit he told us (politely) that we were out of our minds. He wouldn’t consider it.

So we caught a ride with the cat and went out for a day ski. The snow was so cold that the crystals stayed sharp as shards of glass. The glide part of cross country skiing works because the friction of the ski melts a layer of snow beneath the ski. This was like slogging through sand on long boards. My wooden skis moved, at least. The brand new fiberglass skis were useless.

When I suggested to my partner, (tactfully, I thought) that she might want to put in a little more effort so that we would get back before dark, she took off her skis and through them at me. I may be an idiot but I can take a hint. I strapped them on and tried to glide. It was like being on fly paper.  She glided away and left me to stew about faulty assumptions.

I finally gave up trying to wax my way out of the problem and and simply walked on the snow, using the skis as cumbersome snowshoes. Halfway back we came across a herd of buffalo. They stopped and lowered their massive heads, steam coming out of their nostrils. We stared. They stared. Nobody moved. Then we made a wide detour out into the untracked snow. This land was their land, after all.

Snowcars by David Robertson

Quebecers have a famous anthem that goes this way– Mon pays, ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver. My country is not a country; it is winter. In places where it snows, the world is transformed. Every hill and stream becomes a sculpture, a new form. Out in the winter, you become new as well. Here in Australia, you have to get into the mountains to experience it, and it is magical.

We marveled with Jason as he caught a snowflake in his mitten and watched it melt, surprisingly slowly. We soaked up stories about Erich’s “Evel Knievel” adventures. We enjoyed the silent company of snow gums. We took simple pleasure in the elemental processes that winter camping requires: staying warm, cutting firewood, fetching water, cooking food, sleeping in tents, exploring a thousand avenues of conversation, drinking schnapps and brandy, and eating, well, everything.

There was the soft snow. There were a million stars in the southern sky. There were warm sleeping bags at the end of the day. What more could you ask for?

Erich in action by Alan Ball