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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
As we worked on our shelters the twilight deepened, 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
digs in on
as twilight sets in.
(Photo by Mary Powell)
View Gary De Kock's
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
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
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 so
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
enjoys the sun
as it rises over
(Photo by Mary Powell)
View Gary De Kock's
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 peeling
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
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
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
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
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
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
album from this trip