Snowshoes, Cold and Olympic Gold
Just wanted to give everyone a quick trip report of the Feb 2014 EGL Winter Hang.
This year's winter hang was a little different, that's for sure. To be fair, unseasonably warm weather, icy rain and some unforeseen personal obligations turned what was originally planned as a merry gathering of hangers on a two night backcountry trip into an overnighter attended by first a group, then a troupe, then a few and finally a pair of crazed hammock campers. It's too bad. We couldn't have asked for a more beautiful weekend to get out and explore some new territory.
Just after 8 am Saturday morning, Iguana and I rolled onto the highway out of Toronto on our way to the Kawartha Highlands Provincial park, just north of Peterborough. It was the first time either of us had been to that park and we were eager to see some new vistas. At first, just east of Metro Toronto, there seemed to be little more than a couple of inches of snow covering the ground, with many patches of dried long grass showing through and things didn't look too promising for a serious winter hang. But southern Ontario's funny that way, and as soon as we got away from Lake Ontario, we weren't suprised to see progressively more snow as we raced past Peterborough and started the final run towards the park. There was easily a couple of feet at least of snow on the ground. We followed the 401 to the 115 up to Peterborough and then Trans-Canada (Hwy 7) until we turned north on Hwy 28. From there we followed the 28 north to the town of Burleigh Falls and caught Hwy 36 west to Hwy 507. Another few minutes on the 507 and we found our turnoff east onto the Beaver Lake Road, dubbed the Road to Catchacoma. It snaked it's way over and around the various cottage covered hills and snow-covered lakes. Despite the snow from the day before, the road was well plowed with a fresh layer of sand.
One of our group, Rofo, had scouted out the area for us a week or so earlier and was able to give us some good information on the area. At the northeast end of Beaver Lake, just as he had promised, the road widened to form a good sized parking area before turning sharply to the west. other than one other car parked by the road, we were alone. We got out and stretched our legs. The morning was perfect; a balmy -2c/28f under sunny skies. The broad snowmobile trail that Rofo had mentioned ran east and slightly uphill into the forest. Although we'd hike in along this trail, we still had to go to the other "official" Bottle Lake trailhead to get the self-registration form.
Getting back in the car, we drove another 500 yards down the road until we found another small parking area carved out of the snow. At the top of the hill we spotted a small covered wooden notice board that held permits, park newsletters and other info. I had been under the impression that we could self register when we got to the trailhead, but I was mistaken. Apparently a reservation had to made with Ontario Parks in advance and then the booking number could be hand-written on the provided permits and placed on the dash of one's car. Hmm. Not to be daunted, I pulled out my phone to call the number indicated on the notice board. No signal. Iguana tried his with the same result. Hmm. I looked at the notice board again and read a little further down "For better cell phone reception, exit the driveway to the right and drive to the top of the hill." Hmm. Back in the car. A couple of minutes later we got through to a Parks rep to book our reservation. Other than being put on hold a couple of times and having a bizarre conversation with the rep trying to convince her that we weren't about to embark on a canoe trip in the middle of February, things went quite well.
With our booking number clearly written on our permit we drove back to the hairpin and unloaded our gear. Both Iguana and I were pulling wooden toboggans. In addition to the basic essentials, we both brought folding camp chairs and I had my ice auger lashed on to allow us easy access to lake water. I was also trying out my Rush-72 backpack. It contained all of my camp gear and food, everything except my quilts, winter boots and extra layers of clothing. I had planned on carrying everything on my back, but the bulk was a little unweildly. As it was, the duffelbag on my toboggan was half empty. I had even waxed my toboggan the night before, first rubbing on ski wax and then melting it onto the wood using a putty spatula heated on my kitchen stove. Once treated this way, the sled runs like a dream. Without any further delay we plunged into the woods, if stumbling around while pulling a sled can be referred to as plunging.
On my last backcountry winter camping trip to Swan lake in Algonquin Park, we had to snowshoe through fresh, deep snow all the way to camp. It was, for someone of my non-athletic disposition, the three kilometer hike was quite taxing. The snowmobile track to Sucker Lake was anything but; broad, hard packed with gently rolling hills, we were able to make good time, stopping only occasionally to shed a layer or take some pictures. But we quickly found that if you strayed off the path only a little and you'd sink up to your knees in snow.
I had a pretty good feel for the lay of the land so after about twenty minutes or so I started looking for a turn-off on the trail, something that would lead us north over the next couple of hills and down to Sucker lake. It wasn't long before we spotted a ski trail that seemed to be heading the right way. We left the sleds and snowshoes behind and struck along the track, sinking slightly every third step or so. We followed it for a few minutes until it appeared to turn back and head west, parallel with the shore. I was sure that the lake was just over the next hill, but it just seemed like too much work to bushwhack over there, especially with a well groomed trail behind us. We returned back to our toboggans and decided to follow the snowmobile trail a while longer. Rofo had told me that it gradually turned northwards, running along the eastern shore of Sucker Lake. We started seeing the broad expanse of frozen lake between the trees, obviously Sucker, and the trail started to descend pretty quickly. Soon a broad snowmobile path branched off to the left and we turned to follow it. We must have stumbled upon Site 125. It was quite nice, with large, well spaced trees set slightly back from the shore; a fine summer spot, ideal for a hanging. But unfortunately the spot was taken; a large green tarp was strung in the pines just to the left. Ahead of us the trail dropped quickly off the shoreline and onto the frozen lake.
Out on the ice, out of the shelter of the trees, a cold northerly wind blew across the lake. Looking around, we saw the island we were had planned on camping; a steep-sided, pine covered island roughly in the middle of the lake. As picturesque as it was, those stands of evergreens meant we'd have to constantly scrounge for wood as we quickly burned through our softwood supply. The far north shore, on the other hand, looked ideal. A high, snow-covered hill streaked with bare grey hardwoods above a narrow band of dense evergreens that hugging the shoreline. Tucked in behind those pines at the foot of the hill, we'd be out of the northern winds and close to an ample supply of quality firewood back on the hillside. You can't go too far wrong setting up on the north shore of any lake when winter camping. In almost every case, you'll have protection from the prevailing northerlies at your back while giving you a chance to get some warming sunlight during the day.
Ahead on the ice we could see a pair of ice-fishermen sitting by their holes, to one side of the snowmobile path we were following north. As we got close, we stopped to chat. They were a young couple of guys and they confirmed they were camp back by the green tarp and that it was their vehicle back at the trailhead. The ice? A good 20 inches. The fishing? They had a bite first thing in the morning, but nothing since. Not very encouraging. Lake trout fishing's like that. Long periods of boredom broken by a few minutes of frenzied fighting. At least that's been my experience. I was starting to regret not having brought my fishing gear.
Crossing over the lake we soon left the snowmobile path and started breaking a path for the north shore. It was pretty rough going, at least for me. I guess the warm temperatures and rain of the previous few days had taken their toll and the lake was covered in a layer of crusty snow over a core of soft snow and slush. It wasn't long before I'd walk for 50 yards, rest and then set out again. Memories of Swan Lake all over again. In hindsight, it probably would have made sense to strap on the snowshoes, but it didn't seem worth it at the time, our destination being just ahead after all. I've certainly found a new respect for the polar explorers. Those guys must have legs of steel to be able to manage to hour after hour of that gruelling exercise.
Eventually we reached the north shore and worked our way in behind the small stand of low pines to the foot of the hill where we planned to camp. The site was ideal; good trees to hang from, little wind and plenty of firewood close at hand. The snow was easily 2-3 feet deep and snowshoes were essential to get around without sinking, at least at first. After an hour or so however, the packed down snow set up nicely and it was possible to walk around comfortably on foot. Still, when we had to venture into the thick bush and deep snow, snowshoes were essential. We also found navigating through the dense pines much by simply getting behind the sled and pushing it through the fresh snow rather than try to haul it up and over our tracks where it would invariably flip into a rut.
It was only about an hour past noon, and we had a good four or five hours of sunlight left. After an initial scouting of the area, we decided to build a quick fire, have lunch and warm up a bit and then set up camp afterwards. I pulled out my collapsible shovel and we took turns clearing out the fire pit area enough to accommodate not only the fire but our two camp chairs. Unfortunately the spot we had selected was a little more uneven than we could have hoped for and our chair placement was a little less than perfect. In the end, I spent quite a bit of my time sitting downwind of the fire "taking in the flavour" of the outdoors. In other words, I was a smoke magnet.
Now Ontario's Provincial Parks winter camping policy require campers to stay off of summer sites. It's a sensible rule for a couple of reasons; not only do winter campers do tend to put a strain on the surrounding wood supplies but the unavailability of proper toilet facilities (aka thunder boxes) means that in the spring, campers are likely to find little toilet paper wrapped "gifts" scattered (pun intended) around the site. One of the benefits of this regulation is that we tend to camp in remote, fairly untouched places. Along the more popular summer routes, campsites tend to stripped bare of easy kindling and firewood. If you've picked a good spot, gathering kindling in the winter is as simple as reaching out and snapping off the bone dry lower twigs of the nearby pines. Close at hand Iguana found some dead standing hardwood and quickly sawed it into managable lengths. I built my personal favourite fire configuration, a top-down fire, lit a piece of birch bark and within a couple of minutes a roaring blaze was driving the chill out of our bones.
Ironically, the remote little backwood spot we carved out for ourselves was not quite as remote as we could have hoped. No sooner had we got the fire going than Iguana reached down and picked up a crushed can off the ground, evidence that even this remote spot had been previously occupied. What were the chances that we would have picked the one spot that may have served as a prior fire pit? Well considering that back at Valens, in our "Gearing Up for Winter" hang, Iguana and 76 Highboy managed to randomly select a patch of snow to place their fire that sat directly over the original fire ring, on a site they'd never visited, I'd put the chances at close to 100%!
Lunch was a simple; a pre-made peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwich, half a litre of Lipton's instant chicken noodle soup and a few swigs of coffee from my thermos, still piping hot. Iguana's lunch was a little more ambitious. Taking his queue from Jiblets he set ten nice chicken wings to grill over the fire. What a feast. After our hike in, this little bit of time out by the fire was a pleasure.
As I switched out of my un-insulated 14" L.L.Bean Maine Hunting boots into my big heavy polar grade Sorel's, I'm glad I took the lessons from Swan Lake to heart. Back then, wearing heavy insulated boots and insulated pants certainly made tripping more difficult. Fighting the weight of a snowshoe, a big boot and pants clinging to my legs was a pain. I actually think I managed to tear the medial meniscus on my right knee during that trip, although it wouldn't be diagnosed for another year. Anyway, this time I opted for a lighter pair of boots and a pair of stretchy Lycra jogging pants, leaving my warmer gear was packed on my sled for camp. It certainly worked well. As recommended, while travelling I started off a little cool, on purpose. The exercise of walking quickly warmed me up and I found that before long I was even shedding layers. Remember, it was still only just below freezing and back in the forest, there was little or no wind to contend with. The hunting boots have especially flexible soles, which promoted blood flow and kept my feet surprisingly warm, so much so that by the time I took them off to switch to my big camp boots, the socks I had worn in were damp and needed drying over the fire. Had I worn my insulated boots, all of that perspiration, and likely more, would have made its way into the felt. They certainly would have been colder and may have even needed to be placed by my socks to dry. As it was, a quick switch into a dry pair of socks and my Sorel's left my feet dry and warm. Iguana had the good sense to wear snow gaiters and kept his boots on for most of the day. It was only around dinner that he switched over to his waterproof down booties, and he had nothing but good things to say about them. With the fabric soles, he said could feel every twig on the ground. I joked that with those on, he could probably feel each snowflake.
While getting changed, I also took the opportunity to throw on my newly fashioned wool bush shirt, modelled closely on the Swanndri bush shirt. It was a fun project and the result was a sweater that with light under layer, was perfect for temperatures around the freezing mark.
With lunch behind us, and about two or three hours of light left, we strapped on our snowshoes and turned our attention to setting up camp. It never ceases to amaze me how long it takes to decide where to hang, even when surrounded by trees. I picked a couple of trees about ten yards from the fire pit and Iguana settles on a pair of trees another ten yards past me. We each stomped down the snow around our areas and got to work. As I mentioned the snow set up quite quickly and it wasn't long before we were able to walk around with only our boots on.
I have a recurring problem on these winter hangs that comes from setting my DIY sil tarp with it's 12' ridgeline tight against the ground in storm-mode. With my hammock's whoopies coming off at around 30 degrees, they intersect my tarp's ridgeline about 6 inches short at each end. Most annoying. In any other season, It's not a problem, I simple raise my tarp a foot and it clears the whoopies just fine, but come winter when most of us try to minimize cold drafts by hugging the ground, I get a sloppy hang. In hindsight I suppose I could have raised the tarp and packed snow around the edges, but it seemed like a lot of effort for a single night at -10c.
With the tarp, beaks, hammock, quilts and underquilt protector in place, my pack hanging from a tree and my toboggan's gear all policed up, it was time to get to work on the evenings firewood supply. Strapping on the snowshoes, I grabbed my saw and started uphill looking for the perfect tree. Even with the snowshoes, it was a tiring climb, with deep snow and a steep incline. But all the effort was worth it. Getting up into this stand of hardwoods, with their grey trunks bare of leaves and clouds racing across the blue sky overhead, was magical, Only the breeze in the treetops broke the muffled silence of the snow covered forest. I stood for quite a few minutes, catching my breath and taking it all in. I kept looking around for that one dead standing tree that suited my needs and eventually found the one I wanted a little further up the hill. The dead standing hardwood was at least thirty feet long and about six or so inches at the base. Using my saw I felled, limbed it and then cut it in half. I dragged the top half back to camp returning for the larger lower section a little later. In the meantime Iguana had found a nice dead birch closer to camp and those big logs became the foundation of our fire. We took turns sawing through the wood, switching after cutting two sections. It made light work of the tree. Neither of us got too tired or overheated and we were left with a good stack of wood. Technically it wasn't exactly one "sh#tload" of wood, as per an earlier discussion in Valens, but it was hardwood after all and it served us well enough.
Evening was coming on and dinner wasn't too far off. We grabbed the auger and ducked under a couple of pines to get down to the lake and pop a hole in the 20 inch thick ice. Melting snow is fine in a pinch, but easier and tastier by far is good old-fashioned lake water. While we were out there, I could but help thinking about the snowmobile trails that crisscrossed the lake. Common sense said they went up to the north end of Sucker, across the portage and into Bottle. From there, there was an excellent chance that they'd turn south and hook up with the Bottle Lake Access point and the road where Iguana's car was parked. Although certainly more exposed than the forest trail we had come in on, the distance up and around the two lakes were roughly equal and flat level walking sounded really good. I tried to flag down a couple of passing snowmobiles to inquire about the trail, but they were either too far away to notice us or didn't fee safe approaching two maniacs waving their arms and jumping around on the ice. Don't blame them either way, but I can't help thinking that if we had been in a real emergency, we would have been out of luck. I wasn't impressed.
Getting back to camp, we threw another log on the fire and I hung my Zebra Billy from a steel cable to warm up some water. Dinner for me was a tender lamb chop and a bowl of dehydrated Mexican rice & beans with chicken. It was one of those freeze-dried meals you can get at Canadian Tire (a large camping/hardware store chain for those non-Canadians) and I was quite impressed. I had readied myself for a less than pleasant mouthful of foul-tasting mush, but it wasn't bad. I'd definitely get it again. The only trick I did was to use a 500ml stainless steel wide mouthed lunch thermos to rehydrate my food. Not as light as a pot-cozy, but certainly more effective. Iguana grilled up a nice slab of steak and then sautéed some frozen vegetables. Nice and healthy. By the time dinner was all finished, the sun had set and the camp had become quite dark. Just the time for a dram or two of Laphroaig; its smoky, peaty flavour making it the quintessential Islay single malt, perfect for the bush.
We sat around the fire for a while and then decided to head out onto the ice and check out the lake and stars. It was a beautiful clear moonless night. The Milky Way ran dimly across the sky and Jupiter shone down on us from high in the Southern sky. We stayed out there on the ice for a while, sometimes chatting, sometimes just silently staring quietly into the sky. Growing up in the big city, I can never go out and look into the night sky without being deeply moved. An added treat was the wildlife. Listening carefully we could hear a the hoots of a Barred owl and even the excited yapping of wolves or coyotes.
After a while we returned the warmth of the fire and sat around chatting. With only the two of us, there was a different tempo that there would have been with a larger group. Not better or worse, just different. Eventually we decided to call it a day and let the fire burn down low. We covered the fire pit in a blanket of snow, I looped my food bag over one of the low broken stub on a nearby pine and we made for our hammocks. As always, I'd been looking forward to crawling into my down quilts all day long. I changed into my long johns and rustled around for ten minutes until I was finally able to settle down. As far as I could tell, Iguana had crawled into his hammock, moved around once and passed out.
Strange thing though. During my thrashing about getting ready for bed, Iguana asked me if I was beside his tarp. I answered that I wasn't, that I was sitting on my hammock moving around my plastic foot mat. Apparently the acoustics in our little area were quite weird, and sounds bounced around quiet alot. I don't know whether it was an undigested bit of lamb, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, or a fragment of underdone potato, but I woke up in the middle of the night with a shout after having a very vivid dream featuring me fending off a very disagreeable Rottweiler. I went back to sleep only to be woken up in the middle of the night by loud rustling seemingly right beside my hammock. Bear? Sasquatch? Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog? Nay. It was just Iguana moving around his hammock. My heatrate returned to normal and I settled back to sleep.
It was still dark when I woke up and although outside it was around -10c, tucked away in my quilts I was toasty warm. I powered up my phone and checked the time. It was 6:57am EST on Sunday February 23rd, a time Olympic Hockey fans the world over would recall as minutes before the start of the gold medal round of 2014 Men's Hockey finals between Canada and Sweden. All week I had looked forward to listening to this early morning game from the extreme comfort of my hammock, even more so now that Canada had made it to the finals. I had just enough time to "irrigate" a nearby tree, grab a snack and tuck myself back in my hammock before the game. Armed with a raspberry poptart, I launched a radio app on my phone and tried to lock into CBC Radio One. I was getting between one and three bars, so I had high hopes. I'd get the pre-game talk, loose it, see the "buffering" counter tick back to 100% and then start listening again. After much fiddling I found that if I held my phone up out of my sleeping bag at just the right angle, my reception was fine. So with a cold hand I listened as Canada cruised to a 3-0 victory over Sweden with Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby and Chris Kunitz each managing to put the puck past Lundqvist into the Swedish net, while Carey Price stopped all 24 shots against him. Breakie from the hammock might be good, but Olympic Gold from the hammock is great!!!
As soon as the game was over I pushed back my quilts and got my day going. Early into the game, I had heard Iguana get out of his hammock and get the fire started. He had asked how the game was going and I, after throwing out a spoiler alert, was more than happy to tell him. Getting some fresh water from the lake, we put on our pots onto the fire. Iguana enjoyed a nice hot mug of organic tea and eggs, over easy. I was suprised becuase he had left his eggs out overnight and even with the cold, they were still unfrozen the next morning. Amazing!
Simple coffee and oatmeal was going to be my breakfast. Back at home I had put all of the oatmeal ingredients into a ziplock bag and now all that was required was to place the entire bag into my metal thermos, pour in some hot water and then screw on the cap for a few minutes. No muss, no fuss and no cleaning! Not everything went as well as planned though. I managed to commit a grevious, almost unpardonable sin that morning: I spilled a full pot of coffee onto the ground. The pot had been balanced on an outer log of the fire and would have been fine if I hadn't reached down to adjust the fire. Such is life. Another trip out to the lake to get fresh water, another wait for the water to boil, another several scoops of espresso coffee (Medaglio- D'Oro: my family's coffee of choice for the last three generations. If it was good enough for dear old Lily, it's good enough for me!)
Breakfast finished, we turned to the task of packing. Fortunately it never takes very long to break camp, especially when hauling your gear on a sled. I had plenty of room in my duffel bag and it was a simple matter to stuff my gear loosely into their sacks and drop them in. In little over half an hour we were packed and ready to go. We did a last look around our campsite, strapped on our snowshoes and plunged into the pines towards the lake.
With the snowshoes on, we all but floated over the snow and slush that had given us so many problems yesterday. Within a hundred yards we were on the firmly packed snowmobile trail heading north, our snowshoes strapped to the tops of our toboggans. The trail was perfect and we made good time up the lake to the portage that would take us into Bottle Lake. The short trail at first rose a few yards and then followed the course of a open creek to the lake below. The sound of water running over stones was seemed out of place in this deeply quiet, snow-covered landscape. There was a little open water where the stream entered that lake and we followed the trail of snowmobilers that had given the area a wide berth.
Another half hour of walking and we saw the yellow portage sign that could only mark the trail up to the main road. Stopping once to catch my breath, we caught sight of the notice board where we had registered. We had made it!!! We pulled our sleds across the open area and to the top of a long snow-covered track that rand down to the road. I let go of my sled and it raced down the hill. Iguana, in the best tradition of our Canadian bobsledders, rode down the hill on his toboggan until he reached the bottom and flipped. I tried to capture it all on video, but somehow got my settings messed up. I only managed to capture his wide grin!
Not wanting to drag our wooden toboggans over the gravel covered road, Iguana set off for the quarter mile hike back to his car. After a while his car pulled up, the back door was opened and we carefully lifted our gear inside.
The drive home was great. We stopped at a roadside cafe in the town of Selwyn, just north of Peterborough, for a proper breakfast of eggs, bacon, toast and coffee. With those eggs and bacon and sausage smothered in HP Sauce and Frank's Red Hot, it was the perfect end to a great trip in the bush. From there it was clear sailing back to Toronto.