Timber Wolf, Lake Superior, Ontario

A lone timber wolf greets
paddlers along the north shore
of Lake Superior, Canada
(Photo by Michael Neiger)

The Rucksack Masthead
By Michael A. Neiger, Marquette, Michigan
Wilderness tripper: backpacking, winter camping, swift-water canoeing
Web site URL: http://therucksack.tripod.com • E-mail: mneiger@hotmail.com
Contents copyright © 1984-2007 by Michael A. Neiger • All rights reserved.

Trip journals and photos

The 16th
a perfect

Lake Superior
Provincial Park
by snowshoe
and sledge

Lake Superior Provincial Park
Ontario, Canada
   February 15-19, 2003

By Mary Powell
   Flint, Michigan
   Copyright 2002

E-mail author at

View Gary De Kock's
   photo album from this trip


Aaron secures his sledge as Micheal and Gary study the maps

As Aarron Cliff of
Alto, Michigan
secures gear on his sledge,
Michael Neiger of
Marquette, Michigan
and Gary De Kock of
Fruitport, MIchigan
study their topographic
(Photo by Mary Powell)


It was 7 a.m.. when I pulled into the Dunkin' Donut a few blocks from my house. A faint peach glow lit the eastern sky. The air was clear and cold. "But not REALLY cold" said a little voice in the back of my mind. I had stopped at this place to fill up the gas tank and buy some bagels for a major winter camping trip.

The little voice had been bugging me through the last couple of weeks of preparation. "What are you doing this for ?" it would say. "It's going to be cold like you've never seen... It's going to be really hard work pulling a 60 lb. sled through that rugged landscape... You could get frostbitten or worse...

So why do you want to go?" "Because I want to see that Canadian forest in the winter... there may be moose and frozen waterfalls. Because I want to know what REALLY cold feels like... and because I want to know if I can do it" I would answer.

Our trip leader, Michael Neiger of Marquette, had emphasized the potential risks and difficulties of the trip in his e-mails so that we would be mentally prepared. The last several groups that he and Gary De Kock, his regular winter tripping partner, had taken out had turned back, some without getting out of sight of their cars.

I had seen quite a bit of Canadian bush the previous summer and could picture why that might be: it's the kind of wilderness that seems to close in behind you when you leave the last sign of civilization.


I had arranged to carpool most of the way to Canada with the fourth member of this expedition, Aaron Cliff, a college student from Grand Rapids. When I pulled into the rest area where we had agreed to meet there was no sign of him, but I was a little early and within a few minutes he arrived.

We loaded his gear into my car and, with some difficulty, he slid into the driver's seat. (I think Neons are engineered for small people and this was compounded by the back seat being stuffed with stuff sacks.) We cleared enough of the rear window to permit a view of the highway in the mirror and headed north.

We chatted about our preparations for the trip, our anticipations and our doubts as the miles flew by outside the windows. Lunch at Mackinaw City consisted of pasties: We'd been instructed to load up on carbs and the combination of pasties and cookies would be hard to beat for that...

And now that I was ready for a nap it was my turn to drive...

Crossing the Mackinaw Bridge we were treated to a view of the mostly frozen straits--a vast expanse of ice shining white in the sun. Then came the rocky ledges and limestone outcropping around St. Ignace followed by the mostly flat expanse of the UP with its alternating farmland and cedar swamps.

Reaching the north end of I-75 at the Soo, we crossed the International Bridge and awaited inspection by Canadian Customs. Apparently we didn't look too dangerous as they waved us on after a few routine questions.


Passing the complex of huge industrial buildings and forest of smokestacks that is Algoma Steel, we threaded our way through the Canadian Soo, stopping at a mall on the outskirts for a couple of last minute purchases--foam to insulate Aaron's water bottle, a pair of gloves that eventually came in very handy as his unraveled, and a little more snack food. It's hard to have too much snack food...

At the outskirts of the Soo the buildings thin out and the terrain becomes more rugged. Soon we were driving through rocky hills covered with evergreen and birch. There were perpendicular rock walls where the road had been cut through the hills and from many of the high points there were stunning views of Lake Superior. Aaron, seeing them for the first time, wanted some pictures. We took a few as we drove and got a few more by stopping at a scenic overlook at Agawa Bay.

In the late afternoon we approached the appointed meeting place--the Mad Moose Lodge. This winter gathering place for ice climbers and a few hardy snowmobilers is located on Lake Superior at the mouth of the Montreal River. Michael had reserved a bunkhouse there for the night. Inquiring about this reservation, we were led to a "rustic cabin."

Think VERY rustic: thin walls, plastic covered windows, bare light bulbs, light visible through cracks in the door etc. The heat was not on and it was colder inside the cabin than outside. Our escort lit the propane heater with some difficulty and set it on "2" saying, "That should make things plenty warm in a little while."

As soon as she left we looked at each other, there was a mutual nod, and we turned it up to "6." We then departed to a restaurant down the road to have dinner while the cabin warmed.


After the meal we returned to the cabin which was at least fifty degrees warmer than it had been earlier. We were not ready to settle in though so Aaron went off to climb a nearby hill and I went down by the river to take a some pictures. The snow was more than three feet deep--it was necessary to stay on packed trails or use snowshoes.

The temperature was -10F and there was a breeze off the lake. The snow squeaked with each footstep and having my mittens off to take pictures was very uncomfortable. My misgivings about spending nights out in the woods grew...

Back at the cabin after our walk, Aaron worked on insulating his water bottle and organizing his gear. I brought some things in from the car, got into more comfortable (read warmer) clothes and did some reading. Around mid--evening Michael arrived. We chatted awhile, double checked some of our preparations with him and talked about where we would be going.

We visited the main lodge where the lobby/restaurant area was occupied mostly by ice climbers who came to the area to pit their skills against its frozen waterfalls, many of which were several hundred feet high. They were a colorful group, dressed in layers of polypro, gaiters over their boots, assortments of carabiners and pitons hanging from their belts. Their faces, ruddy from the cold, were animated as they related stories of the day's exploits over their drinks.

In the late evening Gary arrived, making our group complete. After introductions and a little talk we settled into our beds for the night. Warm and cozy I fell asleep listening to the soft hiss of the propane heater and the muffled sounds of partying in one of the cabins across the way.


Saturday morning was sunny but cold, around -15F. We gathered our things and went out to breakfast. When we'd eaten our fill of pancakes, potatoes and eggs, we headed north hoping that the starting point that Michael had chosen would have a plowed area somewhere nearby where it would be safe to leave the cars.

At his tentative first choice, the portage trail to Gamitagama Lake, there was no plowed area off of Highway 17. A few miles farther north, his second choice, Mijinemungshing Road, had been plowed perhaps a hundred meters off the highway. Two cars would be parked there, while Michael's with its block heater would be at Red Rock ranger station in case it was really cold and neither of the others would start upon our return.

With the cars settled, we packed a last few items into our sledges and began snowshoeing along the unplowed road. The sky was cloudless and a deep shade of blue for winter time. The air was crisp and the snow brilliantly white.

Once we left the highway it was very quiet. The occasional chatter of chickadees, calls of pine grosbeaks and the shush-shush sound of our snowshoes were all that broke the silence. We spent a pleasant afternoon with the road unwinding before us, climbing slightly as we traveled eastward.

The forest opened at intervals giving us glimpses of wetlands, a tempting alternative route along the Baldhead River...

There were tracks to tell us of forest inhabitants: a slice in the snow where a bird had swooped down, a trough running across the road where an otter had traveled from one open part of a creek to another. We saw some large wolf tracks and Michael flushed a partridge from its snowy hiding place.


By late afternoon we had decided to spend the night on a small lake just visible through the trees to the north of the road. We turned off the road and threaded our way through the woods.

We had just gotten onto the lake with Michael in the lead, when one of his footsteps caused a WHUMP sound, like muffled thunder. Almost immediately I felt the snow beneath my feet drop down an inch or so. The muffled thunder sound moved across the lake as the collapsing snow spread outward like an expanding ripple.

Then the silence returned. We paused for a moment somewhat amazed that a footstep could produce such a far reaching effect. We spread out to cross the ice and Michael probed the snow repeatedly checking for solid ice beneath. It had been well below freezing here for several months but the possibility of open areas due to springs, moving water or rotting vegetation always exists.


A 40-below night

As the sun dipped below the treeline the temperature dropped rapidly too. Upon reaching the far shore we put on some insulating layers and began to build snow shelters.

Gary demonstrated his snow saw and skill as a "snow mason" by cutting several large arched blocks to make a roof for his snow shelter. These proved to be amazingly strong: by morning the snow had set up and I was able to sit on his roof.

By 6 p.m. the temperature was -30F and our little village was complete. We set up our firepans and began preparing dinner. The most available wood was cedar which makes a hot fire but the warmth could only be felt a few inches from the flames.

For Aaron and I this kind of cold was a new experience and we were fascinated by its effects. We all had frost on our eyelashes. You could "paint" frost on your jacket by blowing on it. Michael tossed some water into the air and the droplets froze before hitting the ground, leaving little vapor trails as they fell.

Smoke did strange things too--at one point it rose straight up from our firepans then spread out in a horizontal layer as if it had encountered a ceiling. The air was very still. We were lucky: wind at that temperature would have been very unpleasant.

While we were building the full moon had risen. Except for checking for a boil in our pots, headlamps were unnecessary. We ate, talked and enjoyed the moonlit scene before us. Michael checked the thermometer at intervals and the temperature continued to drop.

When it was time to sleep Michael and Aaron decided to spend the night out on the lake. Gary and I settled into our shelters. I had a few misgivings due to the fact that I didn't own a winter weight bag and had brought two lighter ones trusting Michael's assurance that that would be OK. I slid my warm bottles of water melted from snow down to the foot of the bag and followed them in.

I pulled my food bag into the shelter and outside Michael closed the tarps over the doorway. It had been a long time since anyone had tucked me in at night...

I assessed the situation: aaaah, toasty warm. When Michael came by at 3 a.m. to make sure all was well it was still warm. And when I opened my eyes at 7 a.m. I was a little surprised to see my breath making intense clouds in the closed space as inside the bag it was still very comfortable.


Upon arising I discovered that a person who wants to use their hands on a forty below morning should take their plunge mitts into their bag at night... I stuffed them into my jacket, pulled my hands up into the sleeves and made a necessary visit to the woods. BRRR!!

Returning to camp I sawed a bit of wood and lit a fire to make coffee. Michael came in from the lake saying that it had gotten a little chilly out there in the night. Aaron, however, apparently hadn't noticed--he was still sound asleep and would need to be called several times before he stirred from his bag.

Michael related that he'd been aroused around 5 a.m. by an MNR ranger who had followed our trail from the highway on his snowmobile and snowshoed out on the lake to see if A) we had more than the legal number of lines in the water or B) if we were in need of help. As neither was the case, he'd left us to enjoy the wilderness after volunteering to pack a trail to Lake Mijinemunshing for us with his snowmobile.


Given the possibility that there might be a packed trail when we returned to the road, Michael naturally suggested that we go in the opposite direction adding a loop to our planned route.

We joked about whether this should be called plan A1 or plan B or what... (going to plan B usually refers to a response to some adverse event--which I suppose the threat of a trail may have been).

Then we packed our sleds and headed along the shore toward the outlet of the lake, planning to follow this creek to Baldhead Lake and follow its shore on to Lake Mijinemunshing.

The morning unfolded enjoyably. It was another day of cloudless sky and sunshine brilliant on the snow. The temperature probably got above zero by afternoon.

We worked our way up the creek, squeezing between trees, zigzagging across the channel, climbing rocky inclines and sliding across small wetlands. Emerging on Baldhead Lake we headed east 'til we came to the end of it whereupon we bushwhacked to a clearing near Lake Mijinemunshing and had lunch.


Plan A called for camping at the far end of Lake Mijinemunshing and it was already midafternoon. When we had been sledging along the shore awhile Michael turned the lead over to Gary saying, "Pick us a good spot to spend the night."

After passing several little bays that our tired muscles would gladly have accepted as home for the night, this campsite connoisseur chose one with an eastward view across the lake with a low hill centered on the far shore.

Twilight was upon us as we began construction of our shelters. Nevertheless, everyone seemed to get right into the project. Gary again did a modified trench shelter with a snowblock roof.

Aaron dug into a drift on the lee side of a large boulder making a huge room with a granite wall on one side and a pole/tarp supported roof. To this he added a cooking patio complete with a captain's chair.

Michael and I made hybrid shelters--half trench, half excavated like a quinzie. Improved roofing technique and a better tarp door made mine more thermally efficient than the previous night's structure.

As we worked on our shelters the twilight deepened, Gary De Kock digs in on Mijinemungshing Lake as twilight sets in but a glow appeared behind the hill across the lake. The sky was dusky lavender and rose with hints of peach above the dark silhouette of the hill.

Gary De Kock of
Fruitport, Michigan
digs in on
Mijinemungshing Lake
as twilight sets in.
(Photo by Mary Powell)

View Gary De Kock's
   photo album from this trip

Against this backdrop the moon came up, huge and golden at first and becoming bright cream as it got higher. It was so beautiful we stopped working frequently to stand still and take it in. Others saw it too: from far away across the lake came the low howl of a wolf. That scene alone made all the effort of getting out here worthwhile.


An interesting finding near this campsite were a number of what we called "blow holes."

Michael discovered the first one--a hollow stump exhaling a small cloud of water vapor with the smell of rotting wood into the still air. I found several others while looking for firewood.

These formations are testimony to the insulating power of snow (-40 F the previous night) and probably to the heat generating power of decaying organic material.

Peering into one at the base of a cedar, my headlamp illuminated a pool of still water and some green plants. As I reached down to check the temperature inside (definitely warm), I imagined a mouse or some other small creature taking a drink from the pool and seeing this weird bluish light followed by the appearance of a giant appendage....


We cooked and ate at our own dwellings, but visited each other at intervals like inhabitants of a small town. We shared the beauty of the scene and talked of other trips.

Michael mentioned calling to a wolf on a canoe trip 'til it came and hung around their camp. Aaron was immediately taken by that idea and pestered Michael to try it here.

Finally, when the meal was over and we were stowing things for the night, Michael relented and gave his rendition of a wolf howl. Gary later indicated that the accuracy of this rendition was highly questionable, but apparently wolves aren't too particular: after a few moments, from far away came an answering call.

That, of course, required a reply from Michael. This tentative dialog went on for quite a while, interspersed with conversation. Around midnight I crawled into my shelter and pulled the tarp across the door. The last thing I remember of the evening is Michael's call and the wolf's answer from more directly across the lake but still far away.


When I awoke to dusky light on Monday morning I thought it must be cloudy, but pulling the tarp to the side of the door I saw it was just very early. The sky was clear, blue-gray and full of pale stars. A peach glow again silhouetted the hill to the east.

I donned my mukluks and began the morning routine: build a fire, put on a pot of water, stuff the sleeping bag...

By the time I had a cup of coffee warming my hands the sun was up and soMary enjoys the sunrise were my fellow travelers. Gary's excellent site selection definitely paid off: with the full strength of the morning sun we were peeling layers before we finished packing.

Mary Powell of
Flint, Michigan
enjoys the sun
as it rises over
Mijinemungshing Lake.
(Photo by Mary Powell)

View Gary De Kock's
   photo album from this trip

Today's travel would take us south and west--up the Anjigami River toward Gamitagama Lake. Anticipating rugged terrain instead of flat lakeshore, I worked at getting things packed down in the sled to keep it from wanting to roll over.

We scraped the frost from the bottoms of the sleds each morning too, to reduce their drag. After going a short way along the lakeshore we turned to follow the Anjigami.

I always find the woods beautiful in the winter with their angular lines softened by the snow. This remote section of forest was particularly so.

The Anjigami winds up a rocky valley. Birch and evergreen trees grow in the crevices between boulders and on ledges where scant soil can cling. The snow was at least a meter deep. The cedars and spruce were heavily weighted down. Huge clumps of snow hanging in the trees posed an "avalanche" risk to those who inadvertently bumped their branches.

The cream colored birches, less heavily laden, stood straight, their trunks decorated with the soft curlicues and tattered edges of Birches along Anjigami Riverpeeling bark that are characteristic of the species. Scattered throughout were bushes with clusters of bright red berries--each cluster topped with a cap of snow.

Our bushwhack route
up along the Anjigami
River took us through
a beautiful stand of
(Photo by Mary Powell)

View Gary De Kock's
   photo album from this trip

Snow sculptures were everywhere. Huge drifts along the stream had been shaped by the wind into graceful sweeping curves. Every leaning or fallen tree held a drift of snow carved into a unique form. In some of these the varying layers of snow that had fallen since the beginning of the winter were visible like the seasonal rings in a tree trunk.

Every stump was capped with a "marshmallow" of snow. And there were frosty "caves"--places where a gouge or depression in the snow opened to the stream. The inside of these were encrusted with spikes of hoarfrost that sparkled likejewels in the sun.


Travel was considerably more difficult in the woods than along the lakeshore but, knowing this would be the case, Michael had planned to cover less distance on this segment. So we clambered steadily but unhurriedly over the rocks and drifts and between the trees.

Climbing a rise on the west side of the stream, Michael called back, "Come look at this..."

He'd encountered what Aaron called "mass destruction of the forest"--an area where moose had foraged for some time. Deep intertwining pathways trodden in the snow were littered with droppings and scattered hair. Bushes were broken down and their branches chewed off. The damage was recent enough to tempt us to follow the path in search of the perpetrators....but it was already midafternoon and we had a way to go to our goal for the day.


There were some fairly significant obstacles to progress long the river. Michael, in the lead, got squeezed into climbing a wall of rocks and logs while the rest of us hunted for a way around it. Later in the afternoon his mukluks had a close encounter with the stream.

When it became apparent that we couldn't leap the river at that point, he told us (while hurriedly scuffing his snowshoes in the snow trying to minimize the amount of slush that was rapidly freezing onto them) to "take the sane way" pointing at the steep bank that angled into the snow covered river.

I'm not sure there's anything sane about trying to climb a rocky sixty degree slope on snowshoes pulling a sled... It was a good thing Mother Nature had installed plenty of small tees for handholds and, in my case, probably a good thing that Gary was behind me to add some push to the sled.


When we came to the confluence of the river and an unnamed stream Michael told Gary to pick us another perfect campsite. Gary headed up the little stream and a kilometer or so later located us along the shore of a wetland.

He immediately began construction of an under-snow mansion, carving out a room perhaps 6' X 10' beneath the surface. Aaron too began a snow shelter, but I had been pretty comfortable the last two nights in my makeshift sleeping bag arrangement and decided to try sleeping out for a change.

So setting up housekeeping consisted of packing down an area for my sleeping pad and making a snow chair and table for comfortable cooking. I set up my firepan, sawed some wood and grilled the last of the steak I'd brought. (One of the luxuries of winter camping is being able to bring some foods that require refrigeration.)

Since the temperature had again fallen below zero, I calculated that the space below the firepan was unlikely to get hot enough to bake biscuits so I made apple crisp to share instead. That and melting snow for the next day consumed two whole cedar snags--talk about gopher wood!

While his meal cooked and for a while after dinner Michael was occupied by chipping the ice off his snowshoes. He'd walked the last couple kilometers to camp with them being at least double their normal weight.

We turned in a bit earlier than usual and I lay awake for awhile picking out constellations and listening to night sounds....

Turning over around 3 a.m. I woke up enough to notice clouds scudding over the moon. The wind had changed and the clouds thickened rapidly. Soon a few flakes were drifting down.

Picturing a possible heavy snowfall I got up and put my tarp over my sleeping area, anchoring it with ski poles and some conveniently located saplings. I drifted back to sleep knowing there'd be a sheltered place to cook if the weather worsened.


Tuesday morning was heavily overcast but only scattered snow had fallen. A gusty breeze from the SW heralded a storm. Not in the mood to cut more wood, I set my alcohol stove over a candle to preheat.

When it warmed enough so the fuel would ignite I started a pot of water for coffee. A cup of that brew, a bagel with butter and a handful of dried fruit made the gray morning look much better.

Packing our sleds, we returned to the Anjigami and there found more "mass destruction of forest." Moose had browsed along the stream and drunk at an area of open water. Again we were tempted to go and look for them but decided we'd better stick to the planned route.

We followed the river again and reached Lake Gamitagama around lunch time. We found a sheltered spot along the shore and had a cold lunch as we had done on previous days in order to have more time for travel.

As we prepared to get moving again a brisk wind was sweeping across the lake driving tiny crystals of snow. We put up the hoods of our parkas and started across the open expanse.

Eager to get across that large exposed area, we kept moving, taking only a couple of short rest breaks through the afternoon. About two thirds of the way down the lake we spotted another human figure moving across the ice.

As we approached his location we could see he was there to fish--a comfortable chair and assorted other gear were spread around a sizeable hole in the ice. It was actually a party of three, two men and a boy, who had come up a portage trail to camp and fish for a couple of days.

We chatted with them briefly before moving on to find a campsite. The snow intermittently became sleet and evening was coming on as we rounded the last point before the end of the lake and scouted around for a place to settle.


Michael, Gary and I decided it was a tarp night while Aaron decided to dig a subterranean place similar to the one Gary had done the night before. By the time it was completely dark my tarp was up and contained a comfortable snow chair for cooking and relaxing.

After a cup of coffee though, I felt more like seeing what was down the shore. I put my snowshoes back on and ventured out. A light sleety rain was falling and the air was filled with mist.

It was apparent we were approaching civilization again as the sound of trucks on Highway 17 was faintly audible in the distance. There was also a microwave tower on the hill across the lake, its flashing beacon making the mist pulse with faint red light.

I was sorry to see the trip ending. We had been very fortunate to get three days of awesome weather and to have snow conditions so favorable to travel. Our expedition had been less taxing and more rewarding than I'd expected.

I wandered a way down the portage trail we'd be leaving on the next morning. The solitude was pleasant. As the sleet fell a bit harder I returned to camp, my snowshoes crunching on the new crust of ice.

Back at camp I cooked ramen and relaxed. Gary's tarp across the way glowed with the light of his candle lantern. Just as I was about to relight the stove to melt snow for the morning's water, Aaron peeked around the edge of my tarp and said he had a fire in his hobo stove that was not being used. I picked up my pad and a pot of snow and followed him back to his place.

The sleet had changed to a light snow. I talked with Aaron while his stove filled the trench with a warm glow and my pot came slowly to a boil. Michael leaned over the edge and chatted a while too. It is so good to have friends to share the enjoyment of remote places...


We awoke in the morning to about six inches of new snow. There was a flurry of brushing and shaking of equipment as variable winds had carried quite a bit of it under our tarps.

We breakfasted, packed once again and headed out, sledging down the portage trail to Highway 17 then hiking up the road to our cars. Another great trip...

When plans are drawn up for the 17th Annual Canadian Snowshoe Tour next year, I hope my name will be on the list.

View Gary De Kock's
   photo album from this trip



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In God's wilderness lies the hope of the world,
the great, fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.
— John Muir 1838-1914, Alaska Wilderness, 1890

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