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Wilderness Tripping: 17th Annual Canadian Snowshoeing Expedition
   Lake Superior Provincial Park
   Dossier Creek Valley
   Algoma District
   Wawa, Ontario, Canada
   February 13-17, 2004


17th Annual Canadian
Snowshoeing Expedition:

An exploration
of the seldom-visited
Dossier Creek Valley and Escarpment
in the heart of Lake Superior Provincial Park

By Mary Powell
   Flint, Michigan
   Copyright 2004

E-mail author at


View Mary Powell's photo album from this trip.

View Gary De Kock's photo album from this trip.

View Dennis Waite's photo album from this trip.

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A sense of anticipation

A pleasant sense of anticipation pervaded my thoughts as I drove north on Canada's Highway 17 which hugs the shoreline of Lake Superior above Sault Ste. Marie. Having last year's trip under my belt, I felt I had some idea of what to expect from this one, though leader Michael Neiger had repeatedly mentioned that no two trips are the same and that last year's was a "yawner" in many respects.

I had started out a day early and had spent the past 24 hours visiting a friend, Mary Ann, who lives in the Soo. We have done a number of backpacking and canoeing trips together. We talked about gear, caught up on each other's lives and spent a couple hours in the afternoon skiing. After a final hot shower and some farewells I headed out to meet the rest of the trippers in Batchawana.


Sweeping vistas of rocky hills

As I drove, the setting sun silhouetted the trees to the west and painted the clouds a myriad shades of lavender, cerise and peach against the pale blue of the winter sky. The entire landscape north of the Soo seems larger somehow. I enjoyed again the sweeping vistas of rocky hills and bays that spread out before me at the top of each rise. Signs along the road caution one to "Watch for Fallen Rock" and to be alert for "Danger de Nuit": moose.


Rendezvous at the Voyageur Inn and Cookhouse

Arriving a little before 7PM at the Voyageur Inn and Cookhouse, I got a warm greeting from the owner upon entering the restaurant. We had rooms reserved there and he seemed mildly surprised that folks who were planning to go camping in the middle of the winter were actually showing up. I ordered a light meal and when it was about half eaten another member of the group, Dennis Waite, arrived. He too ordered something to eat and we talked of our respective trips up from lower Michigan. As the owner of the establishment began to stack chairs on the tables and mop the floor, we picked up our keys and adjourned to our room. There we chatted about some research Dennis has thought of doing and about how wilderness tripping improves the quality of one's life.


Sorting and packing

Michael arrived around 9PM. After the usual greeting he began helping Dennis organize his equipment in the sled for maximum efficiency on the trail. When the room was completely strewn with gear, Gary De Kock arrived making the group complete. It was after midnight when everything was sorted and packed and we were wound down enough to sleep.



A smooth start

Next morning we were awake, dressed and hungry when the Cookhouse opened at 7AM. We enjoyed our breakfast while the owner chatted about the early voyageurs, modern camping trips and his plans for the business. We paid our fees and signed the appropriate Sierra Club forms. The restaurant owner volunteered to take a "before" picture of us by a mural in the front of the restaurant. Comfortably full of pancakes we bid him adieu, loaded the packed sleds into the vehicles and headed north.


Ten-foot-high snowbanks

We checked in at the park headquarters at Red Rock, letting them know where our cars would be parked and what our backcountry travel plans were. The headquarters building was nestled deep in the snow and the piles around the small parking lot were more than ten feet high. A bird feeder in the front had attracted a large flock of pine grosbeaks. Bushes nearby held a collection of chickadees. A hawk circled, sometimes close, sometimes beyond the trees, undoubtedly hoping to catch one of the smaller birds during an inattentive moment.


Down the Old Woman River

From the headquarters we drove north again to Rabbit Blanket Lake where enough of the entrance road had been plowed for us to park the cars off the busy highway. We unloaded the sleds from the vehicles, pulled them to the east side of the highway, donned our snowshoes and buckled our waist belts. The first leg of our journey was down a portage trail along the South Old Woman River. The day was bright, the temperature reasonable and the scenery awesome. The deep snow softened the woods and framed the dark water of the river where it wasn't frozen. An occasional small bird flitted in the bushes. Otherwise there was silence and peace.


The plan

At the end of the portage trail, the plan was to follow the Old Woman River waterway down to its confluence with Dossier Creek, where we would then trek up Dossier Creek into the Dossier Creek Valley and explore its rugged rocky escarpment.


The problem with the plan:
overflow and falling through rotten river ice

When we bushwhacked down to the river, however, we encountered the glitch in Plan A: there hadn't been enough deep cold to make the ice safe for travel. We made several attempts to go out on it in places where the water was backed up and quiet, but after Michael broke through, dampening his mukluks and coating his snowshoes with ice, we stuck to the brushy shoreline.


The arduous task of bushwhacking up the valley

Since we were unable to 'shoe up the valley on the river proper, we were forced to bushwhack along the river's thickly-forested south bank. This arduous route turned into an exhausting, step-by-step process that slowed us considerably:

  1. Step forward with right foot, advancing left ski pole for balance and to assist in pulling the sled forward.
  2. Step forward and up 1 1/2 feet with the left foot onto whatever is buried in the snow in front of you.
  3. Grasp branch on the far side of the obstacle with right hand and pull HARD so the sled will move forward through the brush that is holding it.
  4. While engaged in step three, simultaneously extricate your right snowshoe from the loose brush it has sunk into.
  5. Then, while perched on the obstacle, extricate your left ski pole from the crusted drift it has sunk into.
  6. Work right ski pole up through the brush and place it in front of you where it will hopefully provide some balance as you step down.
  7. Step down onto whatever part of the snow ahead looks firmest. If it holds you only have one problem: the sled is now up against the obstacle behind you. If it doesn't hold (50/50 chance) you will have to free up that snowshoe before addressing the sled problem.
  8. Grasp the strongest branch you can reach and PULL the sled up onto the obstacle while simultaneously twisting your hips to the right to move the front of the sled over so it will unhook from the branch it is caught on.
  9. Brace yourself as the sled comes over the hump so it doesn't push you over.
  10. Repeat steps 1-9 for five hours or so with variations for mini spruce traps, creek valleys, alder thickets etc.


Where were we?

We struggled through the brush along the stream until the sinking sun made finding a campsite imperative. We took the first space in the brush that we came to.

Later in the evening, with the shelters up, dinner eaten and snow melting slowly in our pots to provide water for the next day, Michael was perusing the maps. Asked where exactly he thought we were, he answered, "In deep shit..."

We had put in maximal effort all day to pull the sleds downhill; all the ways back to the highway involved going uphill...



The next night

Michael did an awesome job of breaking trail all day in the difficult terrain. Another attempt at traveling on the ice ended when Gary broke through. We camped a bit earlier in a better chosen spot. By 9PM the temperature was -20F and the sky was clear so it would be dropping further. Michael built a snow shelter, partly for instructional purposes and partly because he had unavoidably gotten damp from exertion and his mukluks hadn't dried from the previous day. Dinner warmed us and the evening was peacefully occupied by camp routine.



Minus 36 degrees F and sunny?

Dennis was up early. Sometime during the night the temperature had dropped to -36F and his -20 bag had let his toes get cold. He had his stove going when I got up and it was great to get a fresh cup of coffee from him with which to warm my fingers and contemplate the day at hand as the sun began to rise.


Plan B

It had become apparent that to continue trying to reach the Dossier Creek escarpment was to risk wearing out the group and not making it back as scheduled. Instead, Michael planned to turn back to the west and then and climb out of the valley, south into the hardwoods.


A pleasant and scenic route

The day's travel was pleasant--scenic and much easier than fighting brush. We had climbed steadily and had had to tackle some of the rises with long zigzagging traverses. In the late afternoon a steep hillside treated us to a panoramic view that included Old Woman Bay on Lake Superior. We camped on high ground too, among the hardwoods where there was an ample supply of great firewood for my stove and a fabulous display of stars in the velvety black of the moonless sky. We stayed up late chatting and enjoying being out there.



Wildlife day

Another nice day of upland travel, some of it on partially overgrown old logging roads. There were many signs of wildlife and, as we were making satisfactory progress, there was time to examine and enjoy them. Here a partridge had burst from its insulated sleeping space beneath the snow, walked a short distance and taken off, leaving clear wing prints in the soft snow. There a squirrel's tracks traveled from the base of a tree to the rock where he had a meal of pine seeds, leaving the remnants of the cone in a neat pile.

Moose had crisscrossed the road too, and had browsed the bushes along it. An adult moose needs about 45 pounds of forage daily so it was easy to see why the bushes were trimmed to 5 or 6 feet in height. On lower ground near the lakes were many, many track of rabbits and of their predators, the wolves. The tracks told of an endless game of hide-and-seek among the low bushes of the shoreline.


A comfortable camp

By mid afternoon we were approaching Broadtail Lake only a few kilometers from where we planned to come out on Highway 17 again. Finding the ice solid, Michael and Gary decided we would camp in a place they knew from a trip years ago--a small cove at the dogleg turn in the lake. We crossed the ice one at a time for safety and entered the sheltered cove.

It was indeed a fine place to camp. We each picked a piece of real estate and compacted the snow with our snowshoes. As it was early, Gary decided to cut snow blocks for an igloo. Dennis decided to watch. Being undecided about whether to put up a shelter, I went to gather firewood.


Calling the wolves

As I was dragging back the second sorry looking cedar snag (I was spoiled by the previous night's hardwood), Michael asked if anyone wanted to go with him to see if his predator call would bring in a wolf.

That sounded a lot better than cutting up firewood so I gathered up a pad, a book and a water bottle in anticipation of being out there awhile.

We hiked around a corner in the shoreline from the camp and on a hundred meters or so until we found a partially secluded spot with a view of most of the lake. We settled in. Michael blew on the call making the sound of an injured small animal. We waited. The gray clouds blew away and the sky cleared.


Dancing snow devils

"Snow devils" danced across the lake in the light wind. Every few minutes Michael sounded the call. Branches moved and shadows shifted catching our attention, but no wolf appeared. After about 40 minutes we decided perhaps the wolves weren't out yet and returned to camp.

Gary was running out of suitable snow for blocks and decided to top his half completed igloo with his tarp. Michael had eaten too many chocolates while watching for a wolf to be interested in cooking dinner so he decided to build a snow shelter. I began cutting up the firewood I'd gathered.


The final evening

It was almost dark when we started our evening meal and as we ate the stars came out. We shared dessert and talked until it was quite late. When it was time to sleep I spread out my bag by my sled and slid into it. The Milky Way stretched magnificently overhead as you never see it in the city. After awhile a meteor streaked across the sky from the southwest. I could hear soft snores from the other side of camp and sleep came easily to me.


New snow

Around 2AM I was awakened by the cold wetness of snow falling on my face. I turned on my side and pulled up my bivy, but mini gusts of wind kept blowing snow into my face. I tried being patient but the snow won out. I got up and strung my tarp between two evergreens draping it over the sled and securing it. The result was a snug but not very steep pitched lean-to. I woke up a couple more times during the night and each time the "roof" was several inches lower. By morning we had five inches of new snow.



A happy ending

The snow continued to fall as we ate breakfast and packed. The morning's hike made a beautiful conclusion to the trip: the sky as soft gray, the trees were dark green and the air was filled with large flakes drifting down to make a pristine blanket. As we walked they erased the trail behind us.

The cars were found unburied by the plows and all operational. We loaded our gear and drove down to check in at the ranger station. Gary and Dennis were anxious to get home and said their farewells.

Michael and I stopped by Northgate Service for the customary post-trip meal and to talk of where next winter's Canadian Expedition might go...[Editor: We will be attempting to reach the Old Woman Lake Lodge--an old, abandoned, remote, two-story, log lodge situated on a tiny island deep in the heart of the park that, prior to the founding of the park in 1944, used to serve as a fly-in lodge for executives of General Motors.]


View Mary Powell's photo album from this trip.

View Gary De Kock's photo album from this trip.

View Dennis Waite'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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