What are the two happiest words in the English language? Dinner’s ready? Pay day? Kiss me? Well, those are all happy enough if the context is right. But in my mind the two happiest words are “snow camp”. I know this because when I was in my last year of high school I was invited to a snow camp and I can’t ever remember being quite as excited.
You see, I grew up on a tropical island. And if there’s one thing you don’t get much of on tropical islands, it’s snow. But for my last year of high school I travelled all the way to Michigan, USA. I have to admit, if I had understood a little better what Michigan was like, I probably wouldn’t have made the trip. But fortunately for me, I didn’t!
. . . the screech of the hollow metal against the shattering ice sent a very literal chill down my spine.
I say fortunately because sometimes we do things we never would have if we knew more about what we were doing in advance. But once we are doing them we find out that if we hadn’t, we would have missed out on something that is totally awesome.
In the case of Michigan, I never would have gone there if I’d realised just how cold it is. Sure, people said it snows a lot in Michigan but when you’ve hardly spent any time in snow you really don’t know what that means. I sure found out fast that year!
Snow is fun when it first falls. And it’s fun when you’re sledding or skiing. But when it just sits on the ground for absolutely ever, doing nothing but being freezing cold, its charm wears off pretty quickly.
Unless, of course, it’s sitting on the ground at snow camp!
Now to get invited to snow camp at my high school you had to be a “campus leader”. Since I’d only arrived that year I could hardly call myself a leader of anything. No problem. Someone else did. And I was in!
When we arrived at camp it wasn’t initially obvious what to do. During summer they waterski on the lake. They hike in the woods. They sit around campfires under the stars and tell stories. But when it’s winter? Wow. I didn’t want to sit around outside! And I sure wasn’t jumping in the lake. After all, it was frozen over!
But that’s when the camp counsellor said, “Why not canoe down the river?”
I have to say, I thought he was completely mad. Who goes canoeing in the middle of winter? But before I could say anything, Jenny piped up, “Yes, let’s go. And James and Bert, you can come in my canoe.”
Now Jenny was the most beautiful girl in the entire high school. At least that’s what I thought at the time. So I would have gone pretty much anywhere with her. “James, I’m jumping into the middle of this skunk nest, do you want to come?” “Wow, Jenny, you bet, anywhere with you!”
And there was one more thing: I suspected that Bert liked Jenny too. I wasn’t about to watch Jenny paddle off with Bert, leaving me looking wimpy!
But still, I did think it odd, and so I said to the counsellor, “How can you canoe during winter?” “Oh, just like any other time of year, except you wear more clothes!” he replied chuckling. “But what about the ice?” “Don’t worry, the river here never ices over—not even in the coldest winters. You see, when water is running this fast, ice can’t form on the top.”
It all sounded a bit odd to me but he was the counsellor, so he should know, right? And besides, while I was yammering away at the counsellor, Jenny and Bert had dragged a canoe out of the shed and were sliding it along the snow towards the banks of the river. Jenny looked back at me over her shoulder, laughed and said, “Hey James, how about a little bit of help here, big guy?”
I ran over, grabbed the side of the canoe and began to help push.
Of course, you have to be careful getting into a canoe from a snowy riverbank. Bert graciously said, “James, you get in up front.” So I did. He pushed the front of the canoe into the water, then Jenny jumped in the middle. Finally, Bert got in the back and used his paddle to push the canoe off the bank and into the river.
Although it was cold, the sun was shining brightly. And I have to say, at that moment I thought there was nothing better in all the world than canoeing in winter. Why would anyone canoe at any other time? The pure white snow almost glowed in the sunshine. The beautiful trees had icicles on them where the snow had melted and refrozen. In the sunshine they looked like forests of the most beautiful Christmas trees. And once we were around the river bend from our launching site, we were completely alone. Just three kids, surrounded by the most scerene scenery you could ever imagine. We paddled smoothly and slowly. The water made a lovely lapping sound. And the canoe just glided along with the current.
We must have gone a couple of kilometres before the river took a sharp snaking turn to the left. No problem. We paddled on. Everything was going just to plan, until . . .
Until we came to the part of the river that was deeply shaded on both sides by high trees that hung over the bend. We came around the bend about the time the sun was beginning to fade in the short winter afternoon. I blinked as I looked ahead. Was it possible? No. Maybe it was just a reflection? I peered intently ahead. And then the words just tumbled out of my lips: “Ice ahead.”
Jenny looked up. And Bert strained to see past her. “What? I don’t believe it! The counsellor said this river never freezes,” cried Jenny. Bert, who knew a lot about the outdoors, remained silent for a minute. And then, in a very low voice, said slowly, “We’re in trouble.”
“Let’s paddle back,” I said optimistically.
“We can’t,” replied Bert “The current’s too strong for us to fight and the light is fading. We’d never get back before the temperature drops to the point where we couldn’t survive out here.”
“What if we hike back?” I suggested. “The forest is thick and we have no idea where the tracks are. The only way we could navigate is via the sun and look . . .” Bert pointed to the sun slowly fading.
I’m not given to panicking but just then the bow of our canoe collided with the ice shelf and the screech of the hollow metal against the shattering ice sent a very literal chill down my spine.
The current pulled the canoe side on against the ice shelf and for a second I wondered if it would flip us over. Just at that moment Jenny said something that seemed insane. “OK, we’ve got no choice, guys. Let’s jump out and drag the canoe over the ice.”
“No way,” I said emphatically. “Everyone knows you don’t walk on river ice in winter!”
Bert agreed: “Jenny, we’ve got to think of a better idea. Let’s try to smash the ice with our paddles.”
All three of us began whacking the ice and, as we did, our canoe began lurching dangerously from side to side. Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t crack the ice.
“See, I told you,” said Jenny, “we’ve got to chance it on the ice. James, you’re at the front, you get out and pull us.”
I looked back at Jenny. She was smiling and my heart melted just a little. I thought to myself, “If I’m going to freeze to death, I may as well freeze to death happy.”
I prayed as hard as I could and then I slowly pulled myself out onto the ice. First one foot. Then the next. And then I began pulling the canoe up. Soon Jenny and Bert were out and the three of us slid the canoe across the ice like a gigantic ice ski.
It’s strange how quickly something so totally odd becomes entirely normal. The ice creaked under us. But, so far, none of it cracked open. The river not only froze—it froze thick! So much for the camp counsellor’s counsel . . .
The problem with pushing canoes across ice is that progress is slow. And bit by bit the light was fading. “Study the ice in front of us,” instructed Bert, “and be alert—it may break up and we want to be back in the canoe before that happens!”
We lugged that old canoe for what seemed like forever. Night fell as we were still sliding it. I wanted to give up. But what choice did I have? And by this time I was getting cold. Really cold. The kind of cold I don’t think I’d ever felt in my entire life.
We came around another bend in the river and, in the blue darkness, I could just make out some broken ice up ahead. “Look, the ice, it’s breaking up,” I called.
Jenny looked carefully for a minute: “Let’s keep as close to the canoe as we can and get ready to jump in if the ice cracks on us.”
I did my best to follow her instructions. Suddenly, the ice beneath me cracked with an awful sound. “Get back in the canoe, big guy,” she yelled. I didn’t need to be told twice. I leapt in, and with it, the ice under the bow gave way. Jenny was quick to follow. But Bert kept pushing us from the back. “Get in Bert,” Jenny called. “If I do, we won’t get off the ice. I’ll push just a little bit more.” “Get in!” Jenny commanded, but Bert wasn’t listening. The ice was cracking all around us. “Bert!!!”
And just at that moment, Bert leapt in. The canoe listed side to side for a minute, and then he dug his paddle deep into the water and we were on our way.
Canoeing down the river in the darkness was, if anything, more beautiful than in the light. The stars above us sparkled in the inky black sky, the river seemed to flow even more gently and the woods were beautifully still with just the occasional tinkling sound when a breeze moved the icicles.
It was well after dark when we arrived at the point where the counsellor was waiting. We would have paddled right by but he’d pulled his 4×4 up a little track and kept the light on, peering out into the blackness.
“Where on earth have you guys been?” the counsellor demanded. “You’ve broken the world record for the slowest canoeists on earth!” His face was red and he was angry.
“No, we haven’t,” said Jenny in her deadpan way.
“Well, you’re certainly the slowest canoeists this camp has ever seen,” the counsellor said with a mix of relief and reproof.
“No, we’re not,” said Jenny with a wry smile.
“Well, no-one has ever taken longer than you!”
“That may just be true but that’s because we only canoed half the river.”
“Half? Well then you should have made it in half the time!”
“Except that we canoe-skied the other half. And we are the fastest canoe skiers this camp has ever seen!”
“What, I’ve never heard of such a thing!”
Bert began laughing and explained the entire saga. The counsellor’s mouth gaped open. “You kids were dragging a canoe over virgin ice? Are you crazy? What if one of you had fallen in? You would have died in a matter of minutes!”
“We didn’t have much choice,” Jenny explained.
The counsellor just shook his head. “That’s the wildest story I have ever heard. But this river never ices over. Never!”
“Not quite never,” I said. “We’d be happy to take you back and show you where it certainly has iced over this year. But . . .”, and at this point we were all shivering—half out of relief and half due to the bone-chilling cold of the winter night—“but, we’re a little cold.”
“Yes, yes, of course, into the truck, let’s get you back to the cabin.”
That night, sitting in the cabin with Jenny on one side and Bert on the other, I was awfully thankful. Thankful for the crackling open fire with its rich pine smoke wafting up and out of the chimney. Thankful for Bert’s strong muscles. Thankful for Jenny’s clever leadership. Thankful for our great friendship. And thankful that somewhere, way up there beyond the stars, there’s a God who looked down on us three kids and somehow kept the ice from shattering underneath us.
When Christmas rolls around I often think back to that snow camp adventure. And I wonder what would have happened had that ice cracked beneath us. This Christmas I’m thankful God preserved me all those years ago. And I’m thankful we’ll be having a white family Christmas this year—on the beautifully warm, white sandy beach with white billowing foam on the waves all around. That’s the kind of white Christmas I’m dreaming of!
* This is a true story, but the some of the details lost in time have, by necessity, been recreated to provide a feel for the events.
James Standish is editor of Adventist Record.