It’s grim up north. The northern parts of Canada portrayed in early-access survival adventure The Long Dark, that is. We sent Duncan Geere to explore its icy landscapes for Survival Week, and he came back with a tale of a single day in the life of a lost cartographer, trying to map the wilderness as it slowly kills him.
The first sensation is one of bone-chilling cold. I open my eyes, and I’m blinded by bright light from all directions. What is this place? Am I dead? If I’d known that heaven would have been this chilly, I’d have brought a thicker jumper. But no, after a few seconds the whiteness fades into shapes. Shapes of trees and mountains. Slowly, the memories come back.
I was on a plane – a plane flying into the far north of Canada to study an odd geomagnetic anomaly that had appeared close to the magnetic pole. My skills were needed to map the affected area – I’ve been a cartographer for fifteen years. But while in flight, the anomaly grew larger and the plane’s navigation systems failed. In vain, the pilot hunted for a safe landing site, but when the fuel ran low we were forced out of the door with a few basic survival supplies and a parachute. Now I’m somewhere in the Canadian wildernerness in the worst possible state for a cartographer to be. Lost.
I sit up in the snow and take stock. I’m unhurt – my parachute is tangled in the trees above but a snowdrift broke my fall to the ground. The pilot is nowhere to be seen. I’ve no idea how long I’ve been unconscious, but the sky is a bright orange so it must be either dawn or dusk. Downhill a little are some trailers – perhaps there’s someone there that I can speak to.
Loping down the hill, I knock on the door of the first trailer. No answer, but I try the door and it’s unlocked. Inside it’s warmer – there are a trio of bunk beds, some drawers and a table. But the place appears to have been abandoned for some time – as I poke around, dust rises and swirls lazily in the weak light shining through the windows. There’s no-one in any of the other trailers either, so I sit down on one of the beds for a moment to collect my thoughts. In a worst case scenario, I’m going to be stuck here for some time. I’m going to need to find reliable sources of food, water, and fuel. To do that, I’ll need to make a map.
I grab a few supplies I find in the cabins, including a storm lantern, a scarf and some ski gloves, a tin of peaches, a box of matches and a natty knitted sweater with a pair of reindeer on it, and proceed outside to reconnoitre the local area. The sky is clear and the wind has risen substantially since I woke up, so it’s far colder. But the sun has also risen, which means it’s morning, so I know roughly which way is east.
I’m in a valley that runs from west to east, dotted with trees and treestumps. This appears to have been a logging camp. As well as the trailers there’s a partly-collapsed house, so I head over to investigate. Stepping over the threshold, my boot bumps against something and I look down. A scrap of brown fabric pokes through the snow, and the hairs on the back of my neck rise as I scrape back the snow to uncover a body, frozen solid. The bearded face is grey, with the cheeks and tip of the nose a bright crimson from frostbite. I stare at him, and notice a slight smile on his face, as if death came as a relief. I also notice a bulge in one pocket of his jacket, and discover an uneaten granola bar.
That moment, a howl echoes through the valley from the east. I back slowly up to the wall and peer around the corner to see… nothing. I head quickly to the opposite side of the camp, and spot a huge wolf standing between the trees. Miraculously, he hasn’t seen me. As quietly as possible, I retrace my steps and make my way up the valley to the east, keeping an eye on the trees. Another creature appears, and I jump with fright, but this time it has antlers – it’s just a deer. It spots me at the same time and darts west, towards the wolf. I hasten onward, looking back occasionally in fear, but I don’t see or hear anything again.
As I proceed through the trees, I start shivering. It must be below -20 out here, and my clothes aren’t adequate. “It’s too cold to think,” I say out loud, just to hear the sound of a human voice again. Up a slope, I come to a crossroads – there’s a railway track running approximately north-east to south-west. While I note down the information in my notebook, I spot another human corpse. I look down at my inadequate boots, and then to his fur-lined ones, and decide I need them more than he does. Prising them off his feet, I stuff them in my backpack to inspect when I find shelter.
Over the railway line, a slope descends to a frozen river, and I realise that I’m starving as well as freezing. I pull out the granola bar I took from the first corpse, and eat it hungrily while deciding which direction to go. To the north, there’s a craggy peak that I don’t recognise, but to the south there’s a glint of red through the snow, so I follow the tracks that way to investigate.
It turns out to be a derailed locomotive – sprawled across the snow. Birds circle overhead. The door of the train is frozen shut, but scattered around the wreck are a first aid kit and some rifle ammo, as well as a fleece sweater. I press on – up ahead, I can see the tracks run up to the mouth of a tunnel in the rock. The cold is unbearable now, and I need to find somewhere to warm up again.
Before I reach the tunnel, though, the landscape opens out to the south and I spot a large house perched on the edge of a large frozen lake. This looks more promising. Coming closer, I can read a sign outside – “Camp Office”, it says. Thankfully it, too, is unlocked. There’s firewood stacked up in one corner, so using a newspaper I find and the matches, I light a quick fire and warm my frozen extremities. Poking around, there’s a few tins of food, some water, and chocolate, as well as a pair of long johns and some mittens. On the wall, there’s a painting of a log cabin. I wonder if it’s the ruined one I found earlier. I wonder if the frozen body I found was the guy who painted it.
The wind calms outside as I munch through my meagre food supplies, and over the course of a couple of hours I sort through my possessions. This seems like as good a base as any to explore the area. In my notebook, I scrawl down a rough map of what I’ve seen so far – the logging camp, the river and train track, the derailment and the cabin and lake. It’s simple, but should help me retrace my steps later. I’m almost out of food, but I’ve got a decent supply of drinking water and firewood, so things aren’t looking so bad.
From the windows, I can see some buildings on the far side of the lake. So with the hunger gnawing at my stomach, I pull on my jacket again and leave the building. My new boots grip the ice of the lake well, and while it creaks under my weight it appears to be solid enough to walk on. The flat surface, however, does nothing to shelter me from the bitter wind, and by the time I’m half-way across I’m freezing once again. The sky is growing pink again, and I wonder briefly if I’ve got enough daylight to get back across. But I have just one candy bar left, so I need to find something more to eat before bed.
On the far shore, there are two groups of three tiny cabins each. The insides are basic, and I don’t find much food – just a can of pork and beans, some more granola bars and an orange soda. I do, however, find a good pair of gloves. I eat a granola bar and put the gloves on, then go out into the cold again, this time following a path along the side of the lake. At one point, I find myself in a small gully between two high walls of rock, and think I hear something behind me, but when I turn around there’s nothing.
Back at the house, I’m still hungry. At this rate, I won’t survive the night. There’s still some daylight, so I trek up to the tunnel at the end of the railway in the hope there might be something up there that’s edible. As I leave, the sky is burning orange again – and a flock of birds pass by. On a normal day, this would be beautiful. But it’s not a normal day.
As I approach the tunnel, it’s clear I won’t be getting far down it. The roof has collapsed onto a pair of train carriages carrying logs, and the whole thing is a mess. There’s another corpse here, just boots sticking out of the snow. But this one has a whole jar of peanut butter in his pocket. That might just save me. Then I see the corner of a metal box sticking out of the snow, and dig inside. Yes! I pull out a full military-grade ready meal, designed for soldiers in the field, as well as some beef jerky. Excitedly, I head back to the camp office, but I’m stopped in my tracks by another howl.
A wolf, perhaps the same one as before, is pacing around between me and my destination. I sit tight for a few minutes, trying to quiet my breathing as the light fades, then the wolf wanders into the trees on one side of the tracks. I move up on the opposite side, slowly, as he sits down and lets loose another howl. He sounds pained, hungry. A pang of sympathy runs through me, but I slip past without him seeing. When I look back, he’s sitting in the snow in the middle of a clearing, staring into space. The light is fading. I need to get home.
I stumble through the door, and stuff the ready meal into my mouth. Feeling slowly returns to my arms and legs. There’s no electricity, and no other sources of light, so there’s nothing to do but turn in. After carefully removing my clothes I clamber into one of the two bunkbeds on the upper floor. Teeth chattering, I drift into a fitful sleep.
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