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Michigan Bush Rats
Wilderness Expeditioning: Winter Camping & Sledging
Upper Sand River Valley
Lake Superior Provincial Park
Wawa, Ontario, Canada
February 10-18, 2007
from the 20th Annual
Canadian Snowshoe Expedition:
My hardest trip ever
By C. A. Susan
Ann Arbor, Michigan
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- The nighttime drive (that seemed to take forever)
through blowing snow on Highway 17 (the Great Northern Highway) to get
to the Mad Moose Lodge and meet up with the rest of our group: Chris,
Dennis and Michael.
- Eating cookies (courtesy of Mary), and chocolates
(courtesy of Gail) -- they had both sent them up for us despite their
being unable to make the trip themselves. Making last minute gear adjustments
before turning in at the Mad Moose.
- On Saturday morning, waiting with our packed sledges
at our starting location along the highway while Michael walked the
2 miles back from where he spotted his vehicle.
- Our warm up: pulling our sledges up the gradual
climb to the portage trail leading to Gamitagama Lake. Photos at the
portage sign before heading into the bush.
- Crossing the 5km long Gamitagama Lake from west
to east and discovering the layer of thick slush under the snow. (Apparently
water that comes up through the lake ice gets insulated by deep snow
so it does not freeze. As we crossed the lake, we discovered a thick
layer of the slush on our sledges and snowshoes and it froze immediately
upon contact with the frigid air, making travel extremely difficult.
At one point my sledge had so much drag from the ice build-up on the
bottom that it felt like I was pulling it up a steep hill rather than
across a flat lake! We spent a lot of time zigzagging across the lake
trying to avoid the slush (with no luck), then stopping repeatedly,
flipping our sleds and scraping ice off the bottom.
- A rest break at the end of the lake to re-group
(we had spread out in our searches for a slush-free route on the lake)
before finding a nice campsite in an evergreen sheltered spot just north
of the Anjigami River. Michael gave periodic temperature updates and
I remember thinking that the temp was dropping pretty quickly through
the single digits during the evening and would definitely get below
zero that night. We would find out in the morning that it had fallen
to minus 14 degrees Fahrenheit, but all of us had been there before
and this was nothing compared to what lay ahead
- Dennis's unfortunate mishap on our first night
out (these aren't necessarily all good memories): a small branch scratched
his eye (under his glasses, no less) when he bent over to pick up a
piece of firewood. It would continue to bother him throughout the trip,
blurring his vision and causing his eye to water constantly. But, fortunately,
he handled it well; after all, we could not be without our trip clinical
- Leaving our campsite on day two (Sunday) and heading
down the Anjigami River hoping the slush conditions would be different
than the day before
we were disappointed almost immediately.
- Michael reconning, then breaking a trail on, an
alternate route up through the woods paralleling the river until we
reached a point where we could cross it.
- Chris and Michael building/reinforcing a snow
bridge to allow us safe crossing of the river. I remember feeling surprisingly
cold at this time: I was standing around for a bit while Michael and
Chris worked on the bridge and should have put my jacket on but thought
that by the time I got out my warm layers wed be on our way. In
retrospect, this may have been foreshadowing of what was to come later
in the day, temperature-wise.
- Along the way, seeing beautiful snow covered mountain
ash berries with hardy little birds (finches of some kind, according
to Chris) flitting around nearby.
- After crossing the Anjigami, traveling overland
a bit to reach a series of three unnamed lakes on our way to Mirimoki
Lake (and warming up in the process).
- Discussions about the increasingly apparent realization
that the original trip plan might not work because of the adverse travel
conditions on the waterways. The difficult decision was made to modify
the trip as we realized there was no way the group would reach our goal
of traversing the park in these conditions in time to catch the southbound
train by Saturday. This decision was made by the time we reached Mirimoki
Lake. The new plan was to change course and head down to Old Woman Lake
instead. One of the down sides was that, unlike traveling on the waterways,
the new plan meant more rugged terrain to negotiate with the heavy sledges.
- Heading through the series of three unnamed lakes
on the way to Mirimoki Lake: we skirted a rocky island in the middle
lake, then worked our way slightly northeast to what may have been my
favorite campsite set in a stand of birch trees. It was up a small draw
on the southwest end of another small unnamed lake, a tributary of the
- The frigid temperatures that evening, and walking
down onto the edge of the frozen lake after the sun set to admire the
billions of stars in the clear night sky. I remember much of this trip
as clear and crisp: blue sky days and starry nights.
- A good tarp set up that night and a nice little
fire in my hobo stove over which I could cook and take the edge off
the cold. I toured the campsite and visited Dennis who had his fire
going in his titanium woodstove, Michael who was tending his hobo stove
under his tarp and Chris who was stoking the Mother of All Hobo Stoves
at his tarp. :) The temperature that night would get down to 38 below
- The excitement of hearing that I had lowered my
previous record low camping temp (minus 25°F) by 13° F! It seems
kind of crazy to be excited about this but I was not cold in my bag
overnight (Yea, North Face Darkstar!) and it felt good knowing that
my clothing and gear worked as hoped and expected in such cold temps.
- Heading south and east toward Mirimoki Lake the
next morning with Chris leading the way. We climbed a short way up a
creek bed and over to yet another small lake just before reaching Mirimoki.
- Lowering our sleds with ropes when we came to
a steep descent with a sharp right turn at the bottom after having worked
our way over the height of land. It was near dusk when Chris and I headed
down into a bowl to find a suitable campsite while Dennis and Michael
finished the job of lowering their sleds and stowing the rope. Our site
was in the Baldhead River watershed about a kilometer south of Mirimoki
- Another cold night (minus 24°F). I gathered
wood and sawed it up to keep warm. Everyone seemed to keep to themselves
this evening, except for when Chris brought around warmed peanut butter
chocolate chip cookies after dinner. That warm cookie tasted so great.
The cookies were extras from the batch that Mary had sent up for us,
many of which we had eaten the night before the trip at the Mad Moose
Lodge. Chris had the wherewithal to carry these extras with him on the
trip, not to mention the generosity to share them with us!
- The marathon wrestling match to get on my frozen
mukluks :( the next morning before packing up and heading out onto the
small nearby lake. We skirted the edge and made our way during the day
to Piquer Lake and on to Old Woman Lake, headwaters of the East Branch
of the Baldhead River. We zigzagged down the length of the lake (again
trying to steer clear of the slush under the snow) with our goal of
reaching Old Woman Lake Lodge, near where we would make our fourth night's
bivouac on the lake.
- The group's decision that day to work our way
back north and west from Old Woman Lake to finish our trip. We had considered
other alternatives, including traveling Mash Lake Road (boring), but
I was glad that the plan was to do a more interesting route that including
some canoe portage trails from Old Woman Lake to complete our loop.
- Feeling the temps dropping again through the evening:
this would be our second coldest night (37 below). After reaching the
lodge, we took a brief tour of the interior and checked out the latest
logbook entries since our last visit
there via canoe in July of 2006.
- Our next project: setting up our shelters and
preparing for the cold night ahead. Dennis set up his homemade floorless
tent with its woodstove and smoke stack in the small clearing beside
the lodge. Chris, Michael and I went down the hill to the lake and started
to build our snow shelters on the frozen bay just south of the lodge.
I piled up some snow for my shelter and let it set up while I went on
a somewhat frustrating search (I kept losing my snowshoe, but was too
lazy to stop and properly deal with the situation, tie the keeper cord,
etc., so ended up doing a lot of post-holing) for firewood for my hobo
stove and poles long enough to use on the roof of my snow shelter (over
which I would layer my tarp and snow).
- The shadows on the lake as the sun moved behind
the wooded ridge to the west; the color of the sky around the hills
of Burnt Island in the early evening.
- Sleeping warm in my snow shelter despite the cold
night. Chris said he actually got too warm in his!
- Michael throwing boiling water from his pot into
the air and watching it turn instantly to snow -- always a fun cold
- Making my snow shelter, which was hard work, but
rewarding. It took time that I would have rather spent doing other things,
like cooking, eating, taking in our surroundings, resting. Between shoveling
the snow into a big pile, allowing time for it to set up, shoveling
out the trench and making the roof, it seemed to take up the better
part of the evening. It felt great to finally move into it, settle in,
and start dinner.
- After breakfast and packing up the next morning,
pulling our loaded sledges southwest down the lake. We aimed for a place
where the map showed fewer contour lines than the area right behind
the lodge where the familiar portage trail was. We knew our return route
required us to climb up from the lake and Michael had taken a similar
route on a previous trip so we headed for these less steep slopes that
would make the climb out more gradual. We worked our way gradually up
and up toward the northeast until we joined the portage trail which
rose directly behind the lodge we had just left. Had we taken it straight
up from the lodge it would have been HARD to climb pulling our sledges.
I remember it from portaging my canoe on it last summer (coming in the
opposite direction) and it was so steep right near the lodge that I
fell carrying my canoe downhill. As it was, on the less steep but seemingly
endless route that we did climb, I fantasized about which pieces of
gear I would throw off my sledge along the way if I could get away with
it! I figured that come spring some lucky paddlers would find nice gear
to take with them (and they'd only have to carry it on their backs during
the portages - otherwise they wouldn't even notice the extra weight
in their canoes). :)
- A nice sunny lunch break on the hillside followed
by more climbing up the ridge. My sledge got caught on a big downed
branch and I ripped a hole in it, but fortunately it was still serviceable.
We made the final descent to Baillargeon Lake, also in the Baldhead
River watershed, and decided to camp in a small bay west of the lake.
- My worst night of the trip
..It seems that
we got to our bivouac site fairly early and would have plenty of time
to set up. I started to look for a place to pitch my tarp, but realizing
that we were in for another cold night (that night's temp would get
to minus 24° F again), I thought I should build another snow shelter.
This, of course, after I had already been poked in the face by a branch
while checking out a tarp site. I was informed later that (unbeknownst
to me) my face was bleeding. Nothing serious and the bleeding must have
stopped fairly quickly although I'm not sure if the blood clotted or
froze! After stomping down the snow in the camp area, I started to pile
up snow for my shelter, then took a couple of breaks to search for wood
for support sticks for the roof. When I returned and continued to shovel,
distribute and pile up snow, I realized that I was developing aches
and pains in various body parts. At this point I probably should have
stopped and pitched my tarp, but I was halfway done and the thought
of a relatively warm snow shelter on a frigid night was so appealing
that I kept at it. Michael had finished his shelter and was nice enough
to share his hot water with Chris and I, saving us the time and effort
of heating water for a hot drink. He also pitched in with some shoveling
on my shelter, which I greatly appreciated. Dennis was sitting outside
of his tent, tending to chores and making dinner. Chris had been working
on an igloo, but changed his mind and pitched his tarp with partial
snow walls for additional protection. (I should have followed suit).
Everything I did seemed to be taking forever! It was dark when I finally
got my shelter finished, started dinner and discovered that my stove
wasn't working properly. I consulted Michael who blew into the fuel
line and probably either melted or dislodged a bit of ice. Problem solved,
and I went about making my meal. After that it was time for bed and
I realized as I lay down that everything hurt! I'll spare the reader
the details, but it seemed like every pain or injury I've had in the
last 15 years in any part of my body reared it's head that night. I
tried numerous tricks like elevating limbs, applying cold (readily available
as snow, of course, but try putting your hand in the snow at 24 below!).
I had taken as much anti-inflammatory medication as I dared, without
relief. Suffice it to say I did not get much sleep that night.
- Morning. A relief to realize I was feeling better:
less pain; swelling, not gone, but down from the night before. Life
is good. Ready to face the day ahead!
- Thursday: leaving the west bay of Baillargeon
Lake, first traveling over a short portage trail to an adjacent lake.
Michael and Chris checked out a portage trail from that lake over a
ridge on our way to Picea Lake, but the trail was very steep so we instead
headed west on the lake and did a short bushwhack to another small lake.
As I stepped onto this lake, I sank through the snow and deep into slush
which froze solid on my snowshoes. I quickly removed them, beat them
against a tree and scraped them to get the ice off the bottoms. Of course,
the bottom of the sledge needed to be scraped as well. Once this was
done we continued working our way west on this and another small lake,
then up a ridge that separated us from Picea Lake. From this ridge,
we carefully worked our way down a steep, side-sloping traverse to reach
our lunch destination on Picea.
- Lunch in the sun: it felt great despite the cold
temps. After lunch we continued up the lake to a portage trail which
I remembered from our summer canoe trip to the area. The trails often
look totally different in the winter, but in this case I recognized
it and remembered some of its features, like the reedy lakeshore, which
wasn't apparent at this time of year.
- The pretty little unnamed lake north of Picea
Lake. We chose a bivouac site on the west shore of the lake and everyone
settled in to the task of getting ready for another cold evening: setting
up shelters, melting snow for hot drinks and dinner, building fires
in our stoves of choice. Dennis with his titanium woodstove (I think
this was the night I looked in on him and he was wearing just his base
layer shirt as his stove glowed!). Michael with his homemade hobo stove
with spark screen. Me with my homemade ductwork stove. And Chris with
his giant homemade hobo stove, made from a big (heavy!) stainless steel
pot. We made our dinners, visited each other at various times through
the evening, and Dennis brought around his homemade blueberry muffins
(fresh from his Outback Oven), which were warm and wonderful!
- In the morning, after a balmy minus 14° night,
heading up the lake and over the portage trail that took us to the southernmost
tip of Gami Lake, where we had camped during last summer's canoe trip.
We worked our way up the north-south length of Gami's southern bay with
Chris leading most of the way. The sun broke through the clouds intermittently
on our warmest (and last) day in the bush.
- Fun with sledge pulling: When we made the turn
west onto the main part of Gami Lake, heading for the portage trail
that would take us out to our cars, Michael was leading the way. At
some point, just for fun, I lay down on his sledge with mine still attached
to me, then Chris, who was behind me, lay down on my sledge with his
still attached to him. Michael just kept going; we figured he was pulling
around 600lbs behind him!! Then Michael lay down on my sledge to see
if I could pull him and his sledge in addition to mine. I was able to
do it but my body seemed like it was at about a 45 degree angle to the
- More bad slush: the fun ended soon thereafter
when near the end of our trip we ran into bad slush again. Dennis and
I sank deep into it and had to stop, scrape our sledges and clean the
ice off our snow shoes one last time.
- A final snack break on Gami Lake (during which
I forced down a snack while fantasizing about what I would eat when
I got to a restaurant after the trip!). We finally made it to the portage
trail at the west end of the lake and the road out to Highway 17.
- A short wait while Michael walked the two miles
to get his van which was parked at the Mijin road turnout. We then headed
south, Dennis driving straight home while Chris, Michael and I stopped
for a late lunch at the Mountain Ash restaurant (The Voyageur was closed
for the season this year).
- On my long drive home I turned over in my
mind many aspects of the trip. It was one for the records: fun, hard,
beautiful, painful and definitely a great learning experience!
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album from this trip
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