Saturday, March 27, 2010

Pumping iron

Well, the ‘publish’ button was hardly pushed on my little exposition of how little sexism there is in the trucking industry these days, when I thought I was going to have to print a retraction. It was touch and go for a while there. I thought I’d uncovered a fiendish plot to keep women off the road.

I’ve been offered this job, you see. After a year recovering from the physical meltdown that followed Highway 17 in a blizzard, I finally got the go-ahead from the doc to get back in a truck. I passed the MTO medical and started flinging my resume at trucking companies. I naturally thought that they’d jump at the chance to hire an almost-rookie, after all I was offered the last job before the ink had dried on my licence. But the recession has intervened and loads of experienced drivers are on the market, having been laid off last year. The job pickings are leaner. Especially for someone who wants to drive solo (the doc said no more teaming) and has had a year to get rusty.

So, on the face of it, the job offer was great news. They pretty much hired me over the phone. So, no initial test drive, a solo run into the US and a pay rate that reflected my experience. Hoorah. But then came the pre-employment screening. All the paperwork was standard enough; medical, police check, driving abstracts, both private and commercial, sight of your passport and FAST card, all normal. But then...a fitness test. No-one else does that. The recruiter helpfully handed me a list of all the exercises, with handy diagrams. It’s supposed to be designed to mimic the day to day tasks one has to carry out around the truck. Said recruiter then suggested that I have a chat with their physio about ways to prepare for this part of their screening system.

Of course the intrinsic contradiction in requiring a physiotherapist to help you prepare to demonstrate things that you do all the time seemed to be passing these people by. And I have to tell you that these exercises are not easy. Neither are they in any way related to opening truck doors or bonnets and pulling pins or winding landing gear. And here is where I thought I had spotted some rampant sexism at work.

Some of the exercises are about bending and stepping, they make some kind of sense; you do have to clamber about a bit, up and under things. There is some pushing and pulling, fair enough. But there’s a lot of lifting and carrying, which we just don’t do. The rationale is that you might have to unload your own trailer one day, but nobody does. I’d just had a conversation with the same recruiter about company compensation for out of pocket expenses, one of which is the paying of ‘lumpers’ who will unload your trailer for you if necessary. The worst one could expect would be to use a hand cart once in ten years. So, pray, why would you want me to demonstrate that I can lift to my waist, and carry for 30 feet, a basket weighing 60lbs? Why would I need to be able to lift 40lbs from my waist to my shoulders three times? Why on earth would I ever want to raise 30lbs from the floor to above my head, weightlifter-style? The excuse for this one took the biscuit. You might have to load a heavy dufflebag of your own belongings onto the top bunk, so the physio really needs to see you wave that basket of weights over your head. And take your pulse after each exercise to make sure you aren’t going to have a heart attack every time you stow your luggage.

It’s all nonsense, obviously. Apart from the fact that a 30lb duffelbag on the top bunk would fly off and kill you while braking for the first set of lights you came to, the choice to pack smaller bags doesn’t make you a crap trucker. Just a clever one.

I was sensing mysogyny. Pointless exercises targeting upper body strength for the hell of it, mimicking tasks nobody needs to do...and making tasks that do exist harder than they need to be...clearly designed to keep women out of the company. But why then had they offered me the job in the first place? Were they all just stupid?

I had my chat with the physio. I tried to be nice, not spiky and suspicious at all, just interested. How long had the company been running these tests? Who devised them? How often do their drivers have to redo the screen? How difficult does the physio find doing them? (That last, put in for a little polite devilment, he looked as though he has never lifted anything much heavier than a pie.) The answers were partly interesting and partly peculiar, I mentally filed them away for further contemplation at home. I had to listen to some seriously self-important crap about how much more the physio knows about the right way to lift than I do. I doubt this, I carried people on stretchers up and down stairs for enough years as a paramedic. I know exactly how to use my legs and bodyweight instead of my arms and back, which is precisely why so many of these exercises are daft. There are easier ways to open bonnets and pull pins than the assumptions made on my little page of diagrams. But I did learn something immediately useful.... the physio really likes the sound of his own voice. This means that I can ask innocent questions between one exercise and the next and he will answer at length. That should give my pulse a bit of extra time to recover.

The oddest answer was that no-one ever had to retake the screen once employed. The most amusing, that the physio didn’t have to do them at all. (I enjoyed the sheepish face, ‘oh I can’t do any of that.’) I also learned that the pre-screen is only about 3 years old and has been devised by an ‘ergonomics’ company in the US. It is mandatory for the US terminals in the company, so Canada has to do it too. I googled the source of my irritation and hey presto, really it’s all about US medical insurance. Here’s a telling quote from ATLAS Ergonomics’ website in a section entitled Protecting Your Borders:

“If you are in an industry or community where you share an employment pool with other companies, you also need to consider what those companies are doing. If they are conducting pre-employment screens, their rejected employees will seek employment elsewhere. As more companies implement screens and reject employees, the risk of the employment pool increases.Eventually, those companies who do not conduct screens will absorb the risk avoided by others.”

It appears that the tests are indeed a load of nonsense, but they are not sexist, they are personist. Fattist, cardio-vascularist, under-the-weatherist. The idea seems to be to push each candidate to their physical limits any which way to weed out anyone who might become ill later on during their working career. So, if you are perfectly fit to do the job (the normal ministry medical sees to that) but might have a heart attack, stroke or back injury down the line, we’ll push you there now and ensure that you can’t work at all. No wonder no-one has to redo the routine. If it’s all about insurance the last thing you’d want once you’d hired someone is risk pushing them to their limits again. Despite the bleating about how beneficial it is for us to have this screening to help us work better.

With US healthcare in the news, and people who live in saner countries learning with disbelief how their medical insurance companies behave, it is still shocking to me that people can be treated in this way. Fortunately Canada has universal health care and, if I fail this damned test, there will be other jobs...most local companies aren’t US owned. But in the meantime I have some working out to do.

I have filled a recycle box with 10 and 20 kilo bags of salt, left over from the winter. I am carrying it about the kitchen, picking it up from the floor, raising it to my shoulders and occasionally waving it perilously over my head as the cats run for cover. I am running, stepping, crouching and taking my pulse. A year off sick has taken its toll, I’m knackered and aching and my pulse is erratic. Will I pass the pre-screen and be an employed trucker again? To be honest, it’s difficult to call. I will find out on Monday. If five days isn’t long enough to get super-fit though, at least I will know to blame Americans rather than misogynists.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Have you heard the one about the woman driver?

A friend joked recently, via Facebook, about women and parking. My knee-jerk reaction surprised no-one who knows me, I issued an immediate challenge to a ‘reverse-off’ next time we meet. Which I will naturally win. I have parked ambulances in London, stretch limos in Toronto and 18 wheeled tractor-trailers in Texas. So why am I so touchy around the ‘women drivers’ gag genre?

This little spat led me to ponder attitudes to women drivers over the years. I was twenty-five when, seeking a little more excitement in my life, I ditched postgrad research to become an ambulance driver. This was 1980ish. Feminism had gone a long way towards ensuring that women had equal opportunities in male-dominated professions, but those opportunities only really existed at recruitment level. We were entitled to be interviewed and aptitude-tested. We were entitled to be trained and examined. Instructors were, quite rightly, tasked with making zero allowances for our stature and limited upper body strength. (Although, if you caught one in a good mood he would confess that women were much easier to teach. They had no ego invested in their driving skills and would listen and learn better as a result.) But, if the training wasn’t quite gruelling enough and some of us had to be employed, no legalities or political niceties ensured acceptance on the job.

The comments were predictable enough, easy to deflect, but there all the same:
We can’t have women on our station, there’s only one toilet.
My wife won’t like it.
Women can’t lift.
Women can’t drive.

Women can’t defend themselves. Well this one was reasonable, I’m hopeless in a fight, but the good news was that women generally didn’t need to. The same chaps who were so solicitous of our welfare when they thought it might keep us out of their working lives, became amusingly fond of sending the all-female crew to sort out pub brawls ‘because you’re less threatening’. Their ultimate weapon, the tactic of choice for upsetting the ladies so much that they’d cry and leave the service, was to run a series of blue movies in the mess room on night shifts. My crewmate and I retaliated by settling down with our knitting and criticising the acting. That was fun. The movies stopped. Eventually we all fell into an uneasy truce; which gradually moved through grudging acceptance to mutual respect and honorary chapship.

This may be sounding as though I don’t respect the male of the species, but those years taught me some fundamental workplace rules that I value to this day. Say what you mean, deal with conflict up front, watch the other person’s back regardless of personality defects. Have a row, have a beer, forget it. I can’t work any other way now and find myself in frequent hot water when office politics require a defter touch. Maybe this is why, finding myself in need of a job in Canada, I have drifted back to the freedom of driving for a living. The romance of the open road, the life of the long-haul trucker, the glory of 18 wheels...yes I’m back doing a job that can threaten delicate machismo. My work gloves are fur-lined and covered in diesel instead of latex and covered in blood, I may be permanently terrified (and not very good yet) but the satisfaction of ‘real work’ is familiar and comforting. Besides, I’m convinced there’s a market for a book about a British lady trucker touring North America one truckstop at a time. And Having Adventures.

What about this ‘women drivers’ thing though? It’s been thirty years (give or take). Has anything changed since the trail-blazing days? Oddly enough, yes. A few dinosaurs look down their noses, occasional insults fly via CB radio, but I’m discovering that women are positively popular with freight transport companies. The absence of testosterone tends to caution and therefore safety. They are easier on clutches and brakes and save on maintenance. They are polite to border guards, which minimises delay. I am reliably informed by several trainers that although we ladies have a tendency to take longer to get the hang of reversing a 53 foot articulated trailer (tell me about it) we are invariably more accurate in the end. Bluntly, we bend less stuff.

On the road, the respect is less grudging than it was. But maybe the difference is me. Back in the day I had a trail to blaze, a gender to defend and plenty to prove. I’m in my 50s now and a tad less energetic. Any gentlemanly soul who offers to help me with a recalcitrant landing-gear winch is thanked with a smile and the offer of coffee, not growled at to bugger off and leave me alone. Both sides appear to have mellowed. At this rate, maybe one day I will be able to field a ‘women drivers’ joke with a wry grin instead of a snarl.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Rule # 1: Hang on. Rule # 2: Don't let go.

We set off in single file, with the lead chap in front of me, Barb behind me, Karen behind her and Valerie at the back. Valerie had done this before and was therefore trusted not to need nursemaiding. The first few seconds were terrifying.That optical illusion of speed near the ground kicked in...perhaps experienced skiers are used to this but, well I've mentioned that little issue. Holding on was about all I could manage and there was a bend looming. Frantic that I'd forgotten which way to lean, I ran little diagrams of train crashes in my head to make sure I was going to get it right, but I got my weight on the correct ski, stayed on the sled and made the turn.

I was just congratulating myself on a job well done when a driverless sled slapped into the back of my legs. The leader chappie stopped his sled as it crashed past him too. I remembered where the brake was and stopped mine behind him as a pile of extra dogs appeared from all directions and mayhem broke out. Karen had fallen off (presumably not holding onto her sled in the process) and Barb had left her braking a little late, when she saw us stopped in front of her.
It took a while to sort everyone out, get Barb's dogs backed up, get Karen back on her sled etc. but eventually we all set off again. This was much better, I knew I could do it now. I made it round the next turn relaxed and began to grin; but the loose sled and overlapping dogs thing happened all over again and we stopped to see if Karen was ok. She was unhurt but had decided that maybe her skills lay elsewhere, she didn't really want to go on. So, we waited a while for another worker to come out to us, who popped Karen in the seat at the front of her sled and took over the driving.

The leader was beginning to get a bit irritable with Barb by this time, who was still stopping her sled a tad late when something happened. I was getting the point of all that, since I nearly lost my balance each time her dogs cannoned into my knees and was starting to feel a bit bruised. The third time it happened he lost patience, popped Barb into the seat of Valerie's sled and rearranged the dogs to give her more pulling power. Thus re-organised again we all set off somewhat grumpily. Especially Barb, who hadn't really had the chance to fix what was going wrong, it seemed to me that a spot of more attentive training might have done the trick.

But then we were off properly, taking turns, bouncing about, having a blast. I fell once, misjudging a tight corner, and landed in the snow. I held on to my sled! 'Use the brake' came an instruction wafting from behind somewhere and I remembered that technique, pushing the brake into the snow as you turn the sled upright so that the dogs can't run off while you get back on. And then it was even better because I knew that I knew how to fall off, so the turns got a bit more daring and I finished the course with no more incidents and a huge soppy grin on my face. Want more dogs next time.

As the only newbie to finish the trail actually driving (and the daft Brit) I got a bit of a 'you did well' from the staff as we unharnessed the dogs and calmed down from the trip, but my happy dance of success had to be put off for another time, since Valerie's sled arrived back with a spot of damage. They'd managed to hit a tree. Grumpiness spread. I think I was the only one who actually had a good day, so I will celebrate here and now. It was the most marvellous fun and more like driving that like skiing and I am cock-a-hoop that I picked it up.

But you did have to learn fast or people got hurt. I ended up thinking that they should maybe have had a little practise run to put everyone round before setting off for real, after all no-one expects you to get in a car and get it right first time. I asked Valerie later whether she'd been given any advice on how to handle a sled with a passenger in. It stood to reason to me that the change in weight distribution would mean you had to take bends a bit differently, but she said she'd not been told anything new. Which is probably why they met the tree.

We stopped off for consolation at The Mad Musher, had the finest French Onion Soup known to man and some very passable chips and the girls perked up a bit. We polished off all the leftovers of food and booze that evening, had one more night in the yurt and headed home to tell tales of snow and derring do. Well, I did.

So, would I go winter camping again? Probably. Dog sledding again? Absolutely, but maybe with a different company. Perhaps this lilly-livered Brit has finally found a reason to be outdoorsy. I've picked up a brochure for longer back-country trips where you sled all day and camp at night. Must call Valerie and suggest it for next year.

By the way...

I've been asked about the bells and pepper.

It's probably an inevitable aspect of being an immigrant anywhere; the tendency of the host population to tell a few tall stories. Countries with an indigenous sense of humour do this so well that it can be hard to sort the gentle ribbing from the genuine advice. Brits excel at it of course. 'Be sure to check out the echo in the reading room of the British Museum'...'It is customary to shake hands with each passenger in your carriage on an underground train' know the sort of thing.

Well, Canadians do it too. We were regaled, quite early on, with tales of the traditional pumpkin hunting season for Thanksgiving. The hunt leader blows a whistle to frighten the pumpkins so that they run about in their patch, then you can pick one and shoot it; it is considered most unsporting to shoot a resting pumpkin. Now I may be a daft Brit, and a city kid to boot, but even I know that pumpkins are vegetables. (Although, now when I see a pumpkin patch, it does look remarkably as though they are all just resting up, ready to run about and get some exercise as soon as your back is turned.) But anyway, when the same person began to tell me all about Groundhog Day, I assumed it was another wind up. But Groundhog Day, turned out to be real. Who knew?

Then these people start to tell you about bear country. What to believe? Bear attacks are real enough, they are on the news surprisingly often. The advice for walking in bear country is to wear little bells because bears are most dangerous when you surprise them so it's good if they can hear you coming. This could well be true, proper winter outfitters sell bear bells, I've seen them. Google 'bear bells'...they exist. No, really, try it. (I'm quite charmed by the idea of these rugged fearless types adding a few Morris Dancing features to their kit.) The other thing you are supposed to carry in bear country is pepper spray. A close encounter with a bear is unlikely to end well, unless you are very good at rapid tree climbing, but in extremis pepper spray can buy you some time.

I am unlikely to find myself alone in bear country, but with my ignorance of the geography of this huge land it behoves one to learn what one can, just in case. Our little camping trip in Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island taught us a thing or two, the terrifying Sindy wouldn't allow anything that smelt of anything in the tents, no toothpaste or deodorant, and all our food had to be hung high in the trees. Just in case. A simple road trip up the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario had us foraging about on roads that had 'beware bears' signs posted on the trees, and we'd only stopped to take photos, so you never know. Besides, it's interesting. But the advice is a little contradictory. Once you've done all the bell ringing and pepper spraying, some experts tell you to wave your arms about and act aggressive, others advise 'playing dead' by adopting the foetal position with your backpack towards the bear for protection.

I discussed all this one morning over breakfast, back at the B and B, with a pukka wildlife expert who happened to be staying with us. 'Ah' he said. 'The confusion there is because it makes a difference whether you are in Black Bear country or Grizzly Bear country. Black Bears are more easily intimidated, so you'd wave at them but it's better to play dead for a Grizzly.'

I was suckered in. How do you tell the difference? And the answer, of course, is to examine the scat. Black bears are a bit more able to manage on a herbivore diet, so their scat will contain bits of acorn husks and pine cones and some berries. Since the two species tend to occupy different bits of land, the acorny, piney stuff means you are in arm waving territory.

The scat in Grizzly country looks a little different; pull it apart carefully and you will find, mainly,

bells and pepper.


More dog sledding shortly.

Saturday, March 13, 2010


Day three, after another sensational sunset. We weren't due to start dog-sledding until 1.30, so spent the time with showers and a leisurely breakfast. I'm generally a yoghourt and muesli sort of person in the morning but all that bracing fresh air and fallingover in the snow seemed to make bacon, eggs and toast quite welcome. Although I have decided to introduce the ladies to the concept of kedgeree next time, that must be possible on a camping stove.

Espying The Mad Musher restaurant on the way to our appointment with winter fun, we decided to pop in for (remarkably decent) coffee and thoroughly get ourselves in the mood. Much of the talk was about how it's just like skiing. (Valerie had tried it before, but then Valerie has done most things before.) I had my first inkling that this might be harder than it appeared. Although, I should confess right now that when she first mentioned dog sledding I had visions of the sort they did in Narnia, all wrapped up in furs in a comfy sledge eating Turkish Delight. I only realised that this was the kind of thing where you stand on the back and yell at your dogs when I checked out the website of the company Valerie had booked us in with and saw pictures. But we were committed by then.

The talk of skiiing was a bit perturbing. I'd tried cross-country skiing once and had entertained all and sundry with my hilarious impressions of your classical upended turtle, it sounded like today would follow similar lines.

The first job when we arrived to meet the dogs was to sign a huge waiver full of items to initial. We had to acknowledge that we knew dogs to be unpredictable, that people fell off things and that stupidity got people hurt. I had an OMG moment and then merrily signed it all thinking that this stuff merely applied to stupid people and we were all at least intelligent and capable, if not very athletic. It would be fine really. Off we went to beard the beasties in their dens, which turned to be a clutch of little individual kennels in the woods, impeccably clean and tidy. The dogs were lazing about, sunbathing on their little roofs or standing on their houses better to see who was approaching. It was an idyllic picture until we hove into view, whereupon they got the idea that there may be some running about soon and the noise level went ballistic.

We had instructions for how to stand on the sled, how to take bends, how to go down hills how to stop and how to fall off. Some of it was hard to hear over the noise of the dogs but we did our best to get it. The main things seemed to be; remember where the brake is, lean into turns and if you fall off...hang on to the sled at all costs. I reckoned I'd be ok at that bit, when I fell off that horse last Thanksgiving I had landed still clutching the reins with all my might. It hadn't been a useful skill then, so I was glad to think I'd already practiced some dogsledding finesse. Hanging on to the sled when you fell was a vital safety feature since the dogs would keep running otherwise and the unweighted sled would fly about hurting people. You would fall if you didn't lean the right way taking turns, as centrifugal force would lift the inner ski and deposit it and you into the snow. Braking on hills was to keep the reins tight, otherwise you'd catch the dogs up and get tangled.

'It's pretty simple if you can ski' said the lady. I looked worried and the other three laughed at me.
'She's a Brit, they don't ski.'
'Oh, a Brit, you'll fall off, they always do.'
'Yes, but they're nice about it, they always laugh.'
Well that was good to know.

Then we had a lesson on how to harness the dogs, apparently it was good for them to be handled by us before we set off...that made sense. Getting the harness on was easy enough, but the walking them to their sled to clip them in had me dragged all over the place getting tangled in this that and the other as I finally realised how strong these amazing animals were. 'You're quite light aren't you? We'll only give you two dogs.' I was a bit miffed, everyone else got three dogs. But it had to do with us all going at about the same speed instead of the pint-sized person racing ahead, so I decided to be flattered that there was somewhere in the world where I was considered to be small, and be pleased with my two gorgeous dogs. Both white husky-crosses, although it was hard to see what they were crossed with and I forgot to ask. The sleds, now that I came to look at them properly, seemed a little flimsy. There wasn't going to be much between me and the ground, and it did look horribly like skiing.

The final lesson was Husky-speak. Mushers are mushers but they don't say mush. The word is 'hike' but it didn't look as though we'd be needing it, all the dogs by now were beside themselves with glee and pulling to get started; I had my entire bodyweight on the brake, spikes that cut into the snow, and it was only just enough. 'Oh, your dog is a leader,' I was told just before we set off. 'Mostly they just follow the one in front but you might need to tell her which way to go if she develops a mind of her own. It's 'gee' for right and 'haw' for left.'  I nodded sagely and immediately forgot both words. I was still transfixed by the mantra 'don't let go'...
'Is there anything we shouldn't say to the dogs?' asked Valerie.
"Not really, just try not to scream. They don't like that.'

Friday, March 12, 2010

Wildlife and haute cuisine.

Fresh salmon sauted with red peppers, savoury rice, caramelised baby carrots and salad. It's amazing what you can rustle up on two burners in the freezing cold. The task fell to me to invent a salad dressing, since we'd forgotten to bring any. Some oil, red wine, lemon juice, mustard, fresh herbs and seasoning saw to that and we were not embarrassed by a lack of dressed salad.
The seasoned campers stuck to wine for their evening's imbibing. The idiots drank beer. After a final late night drive to the comfort station for last wees and teeth cleanings we settled down into our sleeping bags and divvied out the ear plugs. Hey, we all snore ok? Then of course, the stupidity of beer made itself apparent. I am all warm in my nightshirt in my sleeping bag. It's the middle of the night, minus 18 degrees and pitch dark outside and I need a wee. I could get properly dressed and walk to the loo or I could get half dressed and find a tree to hang on to while availing myself of a nearby snowbank. This was a clear winner, so I donned coat and boots and popped outside. Decency demanded a bit of a foray into the snowbanks behind the yurt, and practicality demanded a suitably sturdy tree, so what with one thing and another there was some falling over, some getting covered in snow and an inexplicable coat-hood full of twigs that ended up back in the sleeping bag. It would not be true to say that I slept well.

The fabulous Valerie did sleep well however and by nineish in the morning she had produced coffee, bacon, eggs and toast. She also had a plan for the day that involved two short hikes and a scenic drive.
The hikes were on the only two trails clear enough to walk in the winter, others were available but only accessible with snow shoes or cross-country skis, neither of which we had. So, we trampled about learning about logging and wildlife on the easy-peasy trails for kids, the ones that have a display of this and that here and there along the route to con you that you're not really walking very far.

Further from the roads and camp grounds are proper back-country trails, for people who walk for days with their camps on their backs, and signed portages for those strange souls who tour the region by canoe, carrying both camp and canoe from lake to lake.

 We cruised the road looking for moose. I really want a photo of a moose but it's a bit early in the year. Apparently they appear by the roadsides in spring to lick the salt water from the gutters and replace the salt they've lost over the winter. We may have to go back at the right time for moose-spotting, but happily enough saw lots of deer this time, along with odd weaselly things with nice faces called pine martins (which sound like a bird to me) lots of red squirrels, blue and grey jays, massive ravens, wild turkeys and and some sort of grouse. That's quite a lot of wildlife for a London kid. No bears either, apparently bear country is a bit further from civilisation than we were, although you could buy bear bells in the park shop. Which reminded me of the bells and pepper joke. Which nobody had heard. Which surprised me.
Supper of Chicken Algonquin (leeks, garlic, mushies, tomatoes and coriander) another amazing sunset and an evening on red wine and I was
determined to sleep well before the dog-sledding day. But middle-aged ladies don't have bladders that behave well so there were more snowbank and twig related shenanigans before the night was over. Practise helped though, and a sleeping bag without snow in it made for a better night in general...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Dogsledding in Algonquin? Me? You must be joking.

Been months, I know. I only seem to write when I go places, don't seem to have perfected the 'had an idea today' form of blogging. The good news is that I went somewhere this week, the even better news is that the doc says I can get back in a truck because I'm officially recovered. So, Trucking In English may be about trucking again quite soon. I'm in the midst of refresher lessons and job applications, it will be interesting to find out just how much the North American freight industry wants a slightly rusty driver.

In the meantime, winter adventures.

It's a four hour drive from Kitchener to the eastern gate of Algonquin Park,but four middle-aged women with badly packed stuff, who've decided to stop off on the way for groceries and booze, can make it last all day. Valerie is the hardy soul, who backpacks all over everywhere and canoes the back county for fun. The trip is her idea and she knows all about coleman stoves and has the sort of car that accommodates the sort of camping gear that people who camp properly tend to accumulate. Valerie is sure that anyone can love the great outdoors once she has dragged them there. She has arranged a yurt by way of accommodation and has assured us that it will be warm and comfortable. Since we are talking Northern Ontario in a Canadian winter, the words 'warm' and 'comfortable' could well be relative terms.

Barb grooms dogs for a living, Karen manages a huge region for the Parkinson Society, and you know me. Our ages range from 48 to 60 and we will spend 3 nights in this yurt in a semi-closed campground
which, Valerie advises, has clean and inviting showers. It will not be like camping at all really. We will hike on day 1 and go dog sledding on day 2. What was I thinking?  Well actually, what I was thinking was 'if I can survive this, the doc might be right about me being better enough for trucking purposes and even if it's awful I'll be able to write about it'.

The yurt was indeed more comfortable than real camping. It was insulated, had a heater and some lighting and bunk beds.
Outside, in our little bay in the campground, were a couple of picnic tables, a fire pit and a covered bit that would house a barbecue in the summer. The snow had been ploughed back into banks on either side. Walking two yards through the trees behind us took us out onto a little beach and the frozen lake. The sun had been out for a few days so although the roadway through the campground had been roughly ploughed, it was now solid ice. A short walk along the ice in one direction took us to the smelly, camping-type loos. A long walk or short drive along the ice the other way took us to the 'comfort station', a remarkably cozy little complex of loos, showers and laundry facilities. It did look rather as though we were't really roughing it at all. There were a few other yurts about and a lot of empty camping spots, although on our way to and from the showers we did spot a couple of tents and a magnificent igloo. Even Valerie shivered.

We settled in, unpacked the booze (organising a small 'bar' in the snow) and took lawn chairs out onto the lake to watch the sunset with glasses of wine and bottles of beer in hand. Well, the others did. I had trouble with the knack of slamming your chair into a flat bit snow so that it stays level when you sit on it. Each time I sat down with a drink to enjoy the wintery niceness, one or other chair leg would sink into the snow sending me rolling off in a random set of directions to do upended turtle impressions. The ladies were most impressed that, on each occasion, I managed to spill nary a drop.