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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


You might think that a seven-hour drive and three hour ski in gale-force winds would go a long way toward ensuring that our home away from home was less than crowded. That we would, in effect, have the place pretty much to ourselves. Such was not the case. We weren’t even the first to arrive for the long weekend. Three other snow campers caught up with us at the dam and made it to the hut before we arrived.

Then there was Basil, a dusky antechinus. He/She seemed to be a regular at Edmondson’s hut and was entirely blase about human intruders. We heard the next morning that that Basil had curled up inside the hearth of the fireplace with a fire going. It sounded almost suicidal, but none of us was an expert.

According to Wikepedia, the Dusky Antechinus is active at many times of the day. It mostly eats invertebrates, although it will occasionally devour small lizards and skinks. It has a short and vigorous mating season (which occurs during winter), after which all of the males die. If Basil was male, then his days were numbered and he should definitely be out enjoying himself.

We were six when we started out, but Frank was already crook (sick) with a bad cold. He and his son spent much of Saturday in the tent. Unfortunately, the cold went from bad to worse. They finally packed it on on Sunday morning and skied out.

It never seemed hectic during our winter sojourn, but we were inundated with visitors. Forty people or more came through there in the five days of our getaway. It was an easy ski from Falls Creek; it had a hut with a fireplace, a drop toilet and water from a creek. By winter camping standards, it was positively luxurious.

Nearly half the visitors were Army officers on special training. We didn’t see them in the hut, but they were out there, sleeping in snow caves. Their lead instructor was also suffering from a cold so he hung out at the hut. I peppered him with the kind of questions only a foreigner can get away with. “Are you expecting an airborne invasion of Al Qaeda operatives up here in the Victorian Alps?”

He humored me. The training was not specifically about waging war in the snow, he said. It was about testing oneself in a challenging situation.These were all officers, volunteers who would take this training back to their day jobs. They would gain confidence and train others. He let us in one deep, dark secret. Their final night was going to be spent in snow caves without sleeping bags. I didn’t want to be around in the morning. Especially if they had guns.

Alan had offered me a place in his tent. He had no idea how generous that was. I didn’t sleep a wink the first night because of the incredible wind. While he had a steel bladder, I had to get up in the middle of the night, not once, but twice. I had to turn on my torch (flash light) and crawl over him to emerge on the leeward side of the tent. We swapped places the next day and I got much better at my midnight exits, which were mercifully brief. When I did manage to get to sleep, I have no doubt that I snored. Loudly.

Someday, it will all be forgiven. And perhaps we’ll do it again. We’re such slow learners, humans. But then, we have much more time than Basil and we have the long days of summer to forget.


My wife woke up worried about the basil. It was chilly last night, and she was afraid the potted plant might be shivering out on the patio. We have come back to a different country. The heat wave that greeted our discombobulated senses in January is long gone. It is winter and the temps are in their teens (centigrade), thirties and forties (Fahrenheit). There is rain and wind. Clouds skittering across the sky almost every day.

One of my fellow recumbent riders in Melbourne is a weatherman. Such an easy job, I tell him, whatever you predict is bound to come up during this city’s climate lottery on any given day. Cloudy with a chance of meatballs? You got it. To demonstrate his perversity in the face of the elements this time of year, Alan heads for the snow in upper elevations. This weekend he is winter camping.

The political climate has changed as well. Premier Bracks stepped down on the very day I landed. Citing personal matters. It seems that he is having trouble with his children. Having endured more teenage turmoil than he is ever likely to witness, I commiserate. John Brumby, the treasury secretary has taken on the task, launching a scathing attack on Prime Minister John Howard. There’s an election coming up.

Aside from the time zones and the complete change of seasons, the change has included a geographic shift from an old colonial home in the rural farm country of Nova Scotia to an eccentric, modern house in a muliticultural, vibrant city in Australia. Slow to fast. Right now, the Royal Shakespeare Company is in town; a film festival is in full swing, a lively poetry festival has just started and the luminaries attending the Melbourne Writer’s Festival will hit the City in two weeks.

My transition between these two worlds was San Francisco. I parachuted in for a brief visit with my son, daughter-in-law and grandson. They tucked me into their busy, young parent lives on their last weekend of normalcy. While I was there, Dolan got an offer from an up-and-coming software company in Portland. It will be a big change after six years at Cisco. Like the weather, it will all take some getting used to.

By the way, Eric and his companions sailed into safe harbor in County Clare, Ireland on July 26. I’m sure the weather there was sunny and fine. Trust the Irish to plug it into their deal with the EU. No more bad food, no more rain. Stay tuned.

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