Feb 9, 2006

The specter of the Snow Bath is ruining Quebec for me. Anxiety wreathes every moment. I have to run into the subzero chill in my bathing suit. Again.

Today, you see, kicked off with a visit to the Siberia Station Spa outside the city. Given the sketchy French-English translations, I was never quite clear how this deviated from a typical Scandinavian format (hot tubs, cedar-sauna, sweat lodge and snow. Lots of snow.).

Photographer Stuart Dee offered to shoot my cold-weather, first-person extravaganza. So not only was I near-naked among the icicles, but I had someone suggesting: "could you just back into that freshly melted waterfall again and hold your arms out?"

And my personal favorite: "Don't sweat in the sauna."

Thanks to my lunatic thermometer, I don't, in fact, work up a lather in saunas. Throw exercise into the equation and I glisten – glow ... steam, even – like a sow on a winter's morn. But heat simply makes me content, drowsy and – above all – dry.

My father once complained, "you're a reptile child," as I basked on a black rock in the North Cascades, bundled in polar fleece. He'd retreated to the shadows in a T-shirt. "You're exothermic. Whatever heat you produce, expels instantly."

Warm to the touch, but constantly cold: that's me. So why the hell did I volunteer to run into the drifts in my bikini?

And – more to the point – where will I find a bikini in Quebec in February?


"I can't make it back to the lodge," Stuart announces in the yurt.

"Huh?" I manage from my hammock.

"I was born in Manila," the Vancouverite replies. "I just can't walk through the snow back to the lodge."

I stare at this stranger's six-foot-plus frame; he's hardly piggy-backable uphill, socially or physically. And why do I have this urge to fix it all better, anyway? Some demented throwback to my days as a Girl Scout (which ended in dramatic expulsion) or later as a wilderness guide (abandoned in favor of journalism)?

He's scuffling newspapers, trying to origami little booties, when a Scotswoman – Sheila – finally slings him some spare towels. He swaddles each foot like an infant.

At this point, I'm falling apart laughing and saying unhelpful things like, "c'mon, British Columbia. Suck it up! I thought you lot were all tough north of the border."

Stuart shoots back: "And you admitted you have no nerve endings in your feet. So it's hardly a fair comparison."

True, true. Now there's a trait John Lamont Castleman (my father) and I share. We both can wade across rock-strewn, glacial streams without wincing much. Our toenails turn purple and petal loose before we notice boot discomfort.

I pad barefoot up the trail behind Stuart, who camps it up, yelping about the balmy Philippines.

But no amount of smugness will see me through the Snow Bath. Sneakers and wool socks will shield my feet, long-toughened by racing along barnacled driftwood and beach boulders. It's the quivering, cold-intolerant remainder that worries me.

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