As glorious winter in Canada sets in, we’re thinking of all the great adventures on offer, and embracing the outdoors with vigor—now, more than ever! In this story from our magazine archives, three friends dare each other to a backcountry expedition, right in the heart of a Canadian winter.
Story by Russ Cooper, Photos by Colin O’Connor/Outpost
My fingers are numb as I strap on my snowshoes and sled in the Canisbay parking lot of Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park. Photographer Colin O’Connor, his brother Brendan and I look at the map, find our direction and start moving.
Canisbay Lake looks as solid as concrete as we step out onto it. The frigid –25C wind chill does nothing to challenge this assumption. Yet within 20 minutes, my heart leaps to my throat as I feel the thin layer of surface ice crack beneath my feet and my snowshoes sink into the deep slush that covers what I hope is solid ice. The ice holds but the slush builds up on our boots and, in this temperature, almost instantly hardens into solid blocks.
Hours later, yelping curses and struggling in our 10-kilogram ice shoes, we stumble into what would be our first campsite. We’ve only been out a few hours and I feel like we almost became fodder for a Gordon Lightfoot song. About this time, I’m saying to myself, “This is camping?”
For many, the words “winter” and “camping” don’t belong in the same sentence. And I’ll be honest—until this trip, I was one of them. The idea of sleeping in the snow, freezing myself brittle instead of baking in the sun, had never occurred to me. I am a summer bum. I believe that socks and shoes are for the office and it’s not a holiday if I’m wearing a shirt.
Not surprisingly, I didn’t know much about winter camping, but I was intrigued. When we were given the opportunity to clump around the winter woods, the O’Connor boys and I grabbed it.
We wanted rigorous exercise, deep fresh-air sleeps, the smell of wood smoke in our clothes and the experience of being swallowed by the wintry wilderness. For me, it would be drastically new and challenging. Besides, I knew an adventure with Colin and Brendan couldn’t be passed up.
We planned a nine-day, 70-kilometre loop through Algonquin; 7,630 square kilometres of stunning lakes, spruced up trails and gnarly bush that’s only a three-hour drive north of Toronto. From April to October, the park’s occupancy swells like a hungry tick with campers, hikers and paddlers. But in winter, once you’re off the well-worn paths, it’s almost deserted.
In preparation for our trip, Colin and Brendan built pulks—specially designed sleds that attach to a backpack or a waist harness so that gear can be pulled rather than carried. Ready-made pulks cost about $300 and up. Colin and Brendan made ours from online instructions that showed how to fashion them using sturdy expedition sleds, carabiners, rope and metal tubing at a cost of $75 a piece.
I had imagined a winterized Algonquin would be a most welcoming place. Until, that is, I found myself in the middle of that frozen lake, and I heard that most unwelcome resounding crack. When I felt my feet sink into that yellowish slush and I contemplated the potential for eight more days of the same, it was nearly enough to make me hightail it back to the truck.
But after the first nasty day and the accompanying realization that our lives were quite possibly on—literally—thin ice for the coming week or so, the next couple of days went off without a hitch. Soon, we found ourselves smitten by the elegant landscape, the stark silence and our strong camaraderie.
As for travelling on thin ice, there was a method to our madness. In case of accidents, we tied a lengthy rope to each other, and two of us stayed 4.5 to 5.5 metres back from the leader, who broke trail by sweeping the snow away and giving the ice a couple of whacks with an axe to test its thickness every 30 paces or so. A distressing precaution, yes, but one that also provided ongoing opportunities to test our wit.
“Hey Bren, it’s your turn to get up there and give the ice a couple whacks with the axe,” I said one time.
“What? I’ve been doing it all day. It’s your turn.”
“No, it’s not. Besides, if one of us has to be a sacrifice to the snow gods, you’re the youngest and prettiest thing we have. They’ll love you.”
On an average day, we were up at dawn to start the fire and enjoy coffee and oatmeal in the comfort of our sleeping bags inside our tent. Yup, inside. The most important item we had was our 8-by-11-foot 7.7-kilogram Snowtrekker Hybrid tent, complete with wood stove. A bit tricky to set up (every night we’d line the ground inside the floorless tent with balsam boughs, cover them with a tarp and throw Therm-a-Rest pads on top), but it was our gloriously portable cottage.
After breakfast, we set our course, packed up camp, loaded the sleds and trudged all day. Around 3 p.m., well before sunset at 5:30, we’d find a campsite and complete our chores—cut wood, pitch the tent and make our balsam-bough bed. Once inside by a roaring fire, it was heaven.
Besides being a hugely practical place to dry wet clothing and warm boots, the indoor fire helped soothe our tired muscles, satiate ravenous appetites and made much needed downtime warmer. Many nights were spent trading stories, laughing, smoking pipe tobacco and sipping Bison Vodka (a warming Polish spirit with one long piece of bison grass in it that flavoured it like fresh lawn clippings), while we basked in the glow of the toasty fire as the wind howled outside.
Frankly, I couldn’t imagine our trip without our travelling chalet. I was in good company. “There are people who winter camp with regular tents,” Colin said one night. “That’s not camping, that’s crazy.”
Colin had extensive winter trekking experience, having spent time in the wintry Yukon, as well as here in Algonquin. He often took the reins of our route and our strategy.
“We have to avoid small creeks and narrow channels,” he warned us on more than one occasion. On Day Four, when we hit a creek that joined Little Otterslide with Otterslide Lake, I realized why. Brendan, while no babe in the woods (having years of expedition experience), naively decided to test out the ice near the shore right at the mouth. Within a step and a half he’d gone through, not into slush but water. Being only a few feet from shore, he clamoured up the bank, laughing at himself. Being the supportive friends that we are, Colin and I laughed safely from the bank.
The next day, the weather threw us a twist. It started snowing long before we woke and continued all day, blanketing the ground with a fresh 15 centimetres. The temperature hovered around –3 or –4 C, and the resulting wet, warm white stuff made pulling the sleds feel more like hauling concrete through near-frozen mud. We hit the wall early that day, though we hadn’t made it as far as we’d hoped, and by the time we made camp on Happy Isle Lake, we were exhausted and crabby.
A warm supper of curried lentils and Moroccan green tea restored us, and we took a close look at the map. We were facing a big decision.
At this point, we had covered roughly half the distance of our overall route. Colin laid out the options.
“We can continue our route and traverse Lake Opeongo. It’s a particularly wide lake and might be unsafe,” he said. “Or we could turn around and go back the way we came.”
Crossing enormous sections of open ice might be foolish, but if we chose to follow the shore, it could add days to our trip. If we turned back, we would again face some of the precarious ice we’d already crossed, but at least we would know where the tricky spots were. “I’m half-heartedly campaigning for the latter option,” I admitted. Truthfully, I felt a bit uneasy about crossing sizable bays. I knew better than to ever underestimate the power of water.
“If we are overly cautious and don’t take any unnecessary risks, going forward could be the best part of our trip,” Colin countered. He knew forging ahead would be much more interesting than backtracking. Brendan agreed. In simple democratic terms, the majority had spoken. Despite my reservations, I knew they were right, and I trusted Colin’s expertise. As the wind howled outside our tent, we decided to push through and cross Opeongo.
The next morning, Colin poked his nose outside to take a weather report. The low-pressure system had passed and the day was a heavenly crystal-clear –25 C. In the shelter of the trees, the brilliant sun leaked through and made our camp look like an ambient scene from a fantasy movie. Once out on Happy Isle Lake, however, it was more reminiscent of a Werner Herzog documentary. The wind was blowing horizontally at about 80 kilometres an hour, blasting us like a screaming polar hurricane. We repeatedly hit deep, foreboding patches of slush, once again collecting “sleep-with-the-fishes” ice shoes. Our composure peeled away to expose a seething crustiness. Then it happened.
As I was breaking trail about six metres in front of Brendan, I felt two tectonic plates of ice subtly shift under the bridge of my right foot, making a discreet yet firmly audible crack. I froze. As I looked to my right, I saw that I was standing on a fault in the ice—one that hadn’t been there a second ago.
“The ice is cracking under my feet,” I said in a quiet voice so as not to set off a freak avalanche or whatever the winter gods had left in their ordnance stockpile.
Colin impatiently bellowed back, “Just keep going.”
I began to think about Group of Seven artist Tom Thompson and the legend of his drowning in Algonquin’s Canoe Lake in 1917. If we went down, would this be another case of Algonquin’s unmerciful, unforgiving grasp? What kind of mystery would surround our piteous demise?
In one of those transcendental furyin- the-face-of-death moments, I began waving the axe around, furiously yelling: “I’m a person, not a chapter in your inevitable adventure autobiography, Colin! This isn’t slush, this is the San Andreas. One wrong move here and I’m going in!”
“Whatever. Ice cracks all the time. It’ll hold,” Colin shot back.
With Colin and Brendan cautiously chuckling at my prudent movements, I slowly took a step. The ice was holding. Another on, still holding. Maybe Colin was right. When I got to solid ice, I started breathing again.
“Hey Bren, you can lead from now on,” I said.
That night at camp on the northwest shore of Opeongo, we had a great laugh at our supposed near-death experience. Laying back in our eveningwear of long johns and down booties, sipping tea and nibbling chocolate, thinking about the tempest of a day we’d had, I realized that on a trip like this there are significant ups and downs in mood (and weather conditions) and that you just have to roll with it.
When dawn broke the next morning, we were ready to go.
“Alright, boys. We only have mighty Lake Opeongo to traverse and we’ve done it,” Brendan expounded with gleaming enthusiasm. “Beers on me when we hit civilization.” What other motivation did I need?
We set out going south into a sparkling, still day and we were marching in stride in no time. After seven straight days of working together, we had finally found our zone. Much to my relief, the ice underfoot seemed as solid as steel. Lake Opeongo was holding well, the windswept, crunchy snow was less than a foot deep, and the sleds glided like magic carpets. Axe test after axe test, the ice proved itself thick and solid, and my last lingering shards of worry began to melt away.
We cleared the north arm in no time and decided to take the next day off for some R and R in preparation for the last leg of our journey.
Back on the ice the next morning, optimum conditions (a clear, sunny –12 C day, with a gentle wind) helped us swiftly trounce the remaining south arm of Lake Opeongo with nary a snag. How ironic life is, I thought. What could’ve been the worst turned out to be the best. As it turned out, that wasn’t the only irony of the trip.
When we reached the highway that would lead us back to the parking lot, a pickup truck drove up. The driver looked suspiciously like a park ranger.
“How’s the ice on Opeongo?” he asked.
“Th’ sweetest plum of our entire trip,” I said.
“Say, are you the boys that set out from Canisbay a week or so ago?”
We realized that this was Craig Macdonald [a now-retired Recreation Specialist in Algonquin Park] whom Colin had tried to contact before we set out. Turns out he got our messages but was too late to get back to us.
After all the dicey ice we’d dealt with, I had to ask: “Just how dangerous is it to cross the ice out there?”
“Hitting slush and cracking ice is just part of crossing lakes in the winter,” Macdonald explained. “When it snows, the weight pushes the ice down. Eventually, the ice cracks and floods the snow layer on top. The top slushy layer freezes, then the next snowfall insulates the slush layer and continues to push the ice downward. This is repeated over and over as many times as the ice underneath cracks.”
“So, this layering of snow-slush-ice is harrowing to walk through, but it’s just a hassle, not a death trap?”
“I do the ice measurements for the park, and on many lakes there are 20 inches of ice. It could hold a truck.”
I broke down in laughter. The only response I could muster was, “Where were you nine days ago?”
When all was said and done and we were sitting down to enjoy beers at a roadside tavern, we beamed with accomplishment. The O’Connor brothers and I had become a light-hearted, fleet-footed winter camping machine. The camaraderie and the joy of the experience will stay with me forever. Despite my lack of a tan, a couple of scary moments, and missing the opportunity to be immortalized in a folk song, our holiday was a complete success.
Maybe I’m not such a summer bum after all. ♦
Russ Cooper is now an advisor at the Concordia University Access Centre for Students with Disabilities, as well as a freelance writer and researcher.
Colin O’Connor is a photographer who’s been on several expeditions for Outpost, and works as a secondary school teacher in Toronto.