Triplogs / Triplog#74
January 28 - Day 1 - Snowshoe to Wilkins Lake
This was a four day winter camping trip into Algonquin Park's interior. I must caution here that extra care and preparedness must be taken when winter camping. This was my fourth foray into the snowy back-country of Algonquin Park, and our coldest trip yet. There were three of us; my friends Mike B & Jeffrey M (of the 'Free and Accurate Algonquin Map' fame) and myself. None of us could sleep the night before and finally getting up an hour earlier than expected (2:00 am instead of 3:00 am), we were loaded up and out the door by 2:45 am.
The plan was to snowshoe in nearly 7km to Wilkins Lake. I had been to Wilkins Lake before, nearly six years previously, but in a canoe! I had assured my counterparts that the long snowshoe in would be tempered by the fact that we would be using abandoned and very flat logging roads. I just didn't tell then about the portage near the end!
Mike's heavy sled, packed for the 'flat' journey in
We drove up in Mike's van, taking the turnoff for Aylen Lake shortly before 8:00 am, it was a long drive up, coming up through Bancroft, avoiding the long and unnecessary drive through The Park along highway#60. Still, it took us just over five hours to reach our launching point.
The plan was to snowshoe into Wilkins Lake via a portion of a cart trail at The Park border, then trekking along an old logging road to the 970m portage from the Aylen River to Wilkins Lake. A local cottager was very kind to contact me and describe a day-trip snowshoe trek to Wilkins Lake many years previously, via a loop utilizing the logging roads/cart trail. A few weeks before our trip I had contacted the fellow asking if he knew the conditions of the road going towards The Park border. Luck would have it that ten days before our trip, the cottager was in the area and scouted out our potential drive upto The Park border.
It was reported that the road was in fact ploughed, and the fellow even gave us the distance he travelled. I contacted Jeffrey and with his help and the use of his map, we were able to determine that we would launch approximately 1.3 to 1.5km from the Park Border. This extra distance added onto our trek was deemed 'doable' for our party and so around 8:10 am we arrived at the end of the ploughed section of the road, a portage sign denoting the route to Wilkins Lake stood just beyond (Just as the cottager had reported). After that sign, we would be on our own.
The portage sign indicated we were on the right path to Wilkins Lake
I had kept an eye on local weather conditions for the week prior to our arrival and just two days previously, a rain and freezing rain storm had moved through, with some light fresh snow afterwards. I was concerned as to how much crust there was, as my snowshoes were of the traditional kind, great for fluffy powdery white stuff, not crusty snow. If the crust was too thick and the snow cover too thin, I would be sliding all over the place! There was in fact snow. There wasn't much snow, so right away, we were able to pull our sleds with just boots on our feet. There was a crust, with a perhaps a coating of three inches of snow on top. The temperature was around -10°C, with mostly cloudy conditions. It was 8:17 am when we launched, we walked perhaps 300m to where an earlier ploughed section of the road had ended and the snow became too deep to walk on, it was snowshoe time.
With our snowshoes on, we continued our trek along the road, the terrain was very hilly, and in our case it was favourable as the road descended, this preyed on my mind for the trek out...it would be work coming back up some of these hills. Putting the snowshoes on was like getting back on a bicycle, it took only a few strides till I was back into the accustomed rhythm of the snowshoe. I felt great, and the snow conditions were perfect, breaking through the crust easily and sinking only a few inches, the going was easy. The going was so easy that within a minute or two I passed Mike who was in the lead. To his credit though, Mike was hauling over 100 lbs on his sled, I was hauling only 60 lbs. I had a fairly good idea of where I was going and had the biggest snowshoes, so it made sense that I was in the lead.
About fifteen minutes goes by and I came upon a ditch in the road and The Park border lay visibly beyond. The ditch was new (wasn't there nearly six years earlier), obviously a culvert had been removed, and now a creek ran through, emptying out of the nearby marsh. This presented a problem, I had to cross the creek, there was ice, but as I descended, and began to cross the ice, the ice cracked and broke in several places. The front end of my sled became lodged into the ice and was in danger of being swamped with icy cold water. The rushing water was perhaps 1 to 1.5 feet deep in places, with a width of perhaps 2 meters to cross.
I unhooked myself from my harness as my snowshoes became immersed in water, and tried unsuccessfully to pull my sled up, slipping and sliding all over the wet ice. No use, it was stuck, it was too heavy for me to lift and with the awkwardness of the snowshoes, I considered removing my snowshoes but decided against it. I decided to wait for Mike, perhaps he and I could lift it out together. Not soon after Mike shows up, "What's up?" I rolled my eyes, "First challenge of the day", there was no way around it, we had to cross. Mike unhooked himself and with his added strength, we lifted the sled out of the ice and water and slid it over to the opposite slope, pushing and pulling, the two of us got my sled up and back onto the road.
The process was repeated with Mike's sled, albeit with more difficulty, as he had the super-heavy sled. Once we were across and all set-up to go again, we awaited Jeffrey's approach, his was the lightest sled and dragging his sled across the ditch was a snap. I stamped my snowshoes, as they were coated with ice and slush, making them very heavy to walk in. I hoped there wasn't too many more of these ditches to cross, and the memory of a bridge crossing further up the road in The Park lurked in the back of my mind; if that bridge was gone we'd be in for a short trip, for it was a river crossing, not a creek...there might be no crossing it.
Mike & Jeffrey snowshoe along
the Cart trail to Wilkins Lake
We passed through the gate (That was no longer there), sure the ditch might have negated the need for a gate, but to ATV users the ditch just made it more fun to access The Park illegally. All of these worries melted away though, as local snowmobile and ATV tracks had ended nearly half a kilometre before The Park border. There were no tracks whatsoever, everyone was behaving themselves! This was a great relief, to come all this way and find our solitude rife with obvious signs of machined passage would've damaged the experience.
All of us marvelled at this sign of restraint, THANK YOU! I was so happy that I chugged along the fastest I had ever done while wearing snowshoes, and soon was out of sight of both Jeffrey and Mike. It was nearly 10:00 am when I reached the bridge over the Aylen River. To my relief there still was a bridge. However, I was surprised to see that it was a temporary bridge, the more permanent one being removed. With the weight of the snow on the bridge, I worried if the bridge would hold with my passing. Only one way to find out. I unhooked myself from the sled and walked normally across the bridge. No problem! I walked back and brought my sled across. Mission accomplished, this seemed like an excellent place to rest and re-fuel. I pulled out an apple and began munching on it and drank some water.
I thought about all the animal tracks I had seen, there was plenty of rabbit tracks and what looked to me like wolf and deer tracks too. After about ten minutes Mike appeared, having caught up and rested as well, Mike confirmed the animal tracks, telling me that there was lots of deer track. After the extended break Jeffrey had still not appeared. It had been fifteen minutes since I had stopped, and was growing concerned. We decided to walk back a few hundred meters to where there was a bend in the road, and a clearing where an old logging camp had been from pioneering days.
The forks along the Cart Trail to Wilkins Lake
We arrived at the clearing and snow-shoed around a bit, not expecting to find much, when Mike easily spotted the remains of a logging cabin! With winter, it was easy to spot something I never saw in the fall (Nearly six years earlier) with the colours ablaze and foliage covering the cabin remains.
A few minutes went by and we both heard and then saw Jeffrey approach. Clearly there was a problem with his progress, and we waited for Jeffrey to catch up. I had thought perhaps that since none of us had any sleep that Jeffrey was tired, but that didn't seem to be the case, we were all filled with energy and excitement at our trip. The problem was equipment, poor Jeffrey was having to slog along with snowshoes that were too small for his weight, and probably the type as well was wrong for the snow conditions. On top of this, Jeffrey had no harness for the sleigh and was towing it with a measly rope, certainly not the most comfortable way to haul a sled. Jeffrey appeared fine, perhaps a little winded from the extra effort required with his equipment.
After a rest in which Jeffrey also ate some food and liquids, we continued on just a few meters past the bridge up a small hill. Here was a fork in the road. We were to take the left fork, a route I had never taken before, but suggested to me by the operator of the Aylen Lake access years earlier and now confirmed by my email contact with the cottager. The right fork looked unpleasant, as it ascended up a hill, our fork, the left one, descended. So far the road had seemed to me as flat as a board, while Mike had commented to me that whenever he looked ahead to me, it always seemed to him that I was always tracking up a slight incline, I never noticed this.
We continued on down the hill, where the road levelled off, and I looked around at the various animal tracks as I trekked forward. There were several rather large looking moose tracks, confirmed by Mike, who remarked one particular track was of a very large moose. Again, there was a multitude of smaller tracks; hare, fox, deer, and wolf too and possibly marten.
Eventually I came to another removed culvert and had to cross open water as a creek trickled through. This time I was prepared. I removed my harness, and gently lowered the sled to water level, picked up the front end and hauled the sled across the water and up the opposite incline. I awaited Mike's arrival and assisted him with his crossing. While waiting for Jeffrey we re-fuelled ourselves, and I was just about to go on ahead to scout the trail ahead when Jeffrey came into view. Mike & I just picked up the sled and carried it over to the other side, problem averted.
A snow-squall enveloped us on our trek to Wilkins Lake
We harnessed back up and started off with me leading the way again, when I noticed that it had been snowing ever so lightly. The intensity of the snow seemed to increase and within ten minutes a snowstorm seemed to envelope us. Next came winds howling out of the North and it felt like a terrible blizzard had engulfed us; biting cold winds, with heavy blinding snow. This went on for about fifteen minutes when just as I started to think that maybe we should consider making camp, the storm ceased. As quickly as it had come, it dissipated and we were able to see again. I checked behind me and everyone was fine, so I kept on going, quickening my pace just a little bit. The trail was still pretty much flat with the odd slight incline here an there, and by 11:15 am I spotted the portage sign ahead. Joy surged through my soul, we were almost there!
Biting cold winds and reduced visibility limited our travel for a brief time
I swung onto the portage, and was now really doing some serious snowshoeing. Snow depth was about two feet. The portage was clogged with snow, however the trail itself was still readable, the going was slow though. Pretty soon the trail started to climb and suddenly I couldn't remember that the trail climbed so much. True, when I had last visited the trail it was in the fall five years previously and all I had with me was a camera, I was just hiking the trail, not carrying a canoe or hauling a sled, so any hill I had walked would've seemed inconsequential.
Boy, Mike was going to be mad at me, the hill just climbed and climbed. Eventually I got to a few spots were I had to rest before slogging up a steep short section, then I came to a hill that was difficult for me to snowshoe up. The hill was coming out of a ravine, and at the top of the hill was a canoe rest. It took me a good five minutes of huffing and puffing my way, to make it to the top. It was here that I stopped and unhooked my harness, and made my way back down the trail. As Mike came into view, one of my snowshoes fell off and I nearly ended up falling off the trail and into deep snow. After a few minutes of adjustments I was good to go, and joined Mike who was huffing and puffing and having a hell of a time hauling his 100 lbs of sled. Boy, he was grumpy, but I was there to help and soon got behind his sled and pushed as Mike pulled his sled up and over the hills.
The golden sun of a portage sign showed me
we were on the right track to Wilkins Lake
The going was really tough, and it got to the point where I was giving it my all and yet had to tell Mike after pushing up a hill, after twenty or thirty snowshoe steps I had to stop and rest. This continued and with my efficiency dropping as I was pausing every ten or fifteen steps, when we finally arrived at the final big climb. We hauled ass, grunting and pushing/pulling with renewed energy, we made it up over the top of the hill where I collapsed into a sweating heap on the snow, I didn't care where I landed, I just wanted to lie down and cool off.
After a short rest I picked up my harness and continued on for about 50 meters, the trail virtually flat, then it started to descend, the lake came into view, I let out a loud "Wooohooo!" to let Mike & Jeffrey know we had made it, we had arrived at Wilkins Lake! I stopped as I arrived at the shore of Wilkins Lake and gazed out across the expanse of the lake, it was 12:15 pm.
My first look upon a wintery Wilkins Lake
Looking back to Mike as he arrives at Wilkins Lake
It had taken us under four hours to get to the lake. However, it took us over an hour just to cover 800m of the 960m portage. The portage was that diffiuclt to traverse. We headed out onto the small bay, the plan was to make it to the first summer campsite on the lake, then snowshoe past the campsite a couple hundred meters, making camp up from the water. I had looked at an elevation map beforehand, and had an idea of where I was going. About 80 meters past the campsite, I noticed a possible clearing about another 60m up a hillside. I unhooked my harness and clambered up the hill in my snowshoes. Soon I came to a relatively level spot that had a clearing between trees that was wide enough for the tent. I asked Mike to leave his sled behind and to come up and offer his opinion on the site selection.
Mark enjoys a cool down period after conquering the hill (Background)
Mike joined me atop the hill, and nodded in approval, also noting that behind where our tent would be was a ridge, this offered additional protection from a Northwesterly wind. The trees surrounding the campsite looked safe to camp under, so it was decided. Thus began the process of hauling gear up to the site and setting up camp. For the next three and a half hours we stomped out a clearing, put up the tent, made adjustments, put all our gear inside the tent, and set-up the stove, then set about the business of collecting firewood. Jeffrey had mentioned that he couldn't find his knapsack, that had a camera and other stuff in it. So Jeffrey went off retracing our path looking for where he had put down his pack. Mike and I finished setting up camp and by 3:40 pm we had the stove going and the tent heated, which was good, as the temperature started to drop and Jeffrey was still gone!
A solitude filled forest at a nearby summer campsite
Jeffrey had been gone nearly three hours and it was almost 5:00 pm. We started to think that we shouldn't have let him go out alone. It was going to get dark very soon, and we didn't like the idea of going out and looking for him, especially in the dark. We got dressed and hauled ourselves out into the cold and headed down to the lake, and just as we reached the nearby campsite, Jeffrey came into view. He had left his pack, back at the second culvert crossing, where the snow-squall had hit us, nearly two hours down the trail. During his rest Jeffrey had removed his pack and when resumed pulling his sled, he forgot to put his pack back on.
Reaching camp we celebrated with
"Frozen Algonquin Beer Slushies!"
We all headed back to the tent, relief that Jeffrey was safe, and by 6:45 pm the chilli that Mike had made was defrosted and heated up enough to eat. It was delicious. A second helping of the chilli and some frothy frozen beer, we were all good for a long sleep. Before we were ready to hit the sac though we stayed up for a bit, drinking lots of water to replenish ourselves with the occasional liqueur mixed in for good measure, it was during this time that a windstorm kicked up. We were expecting 40 to 60km/h winds and we weren't disappointed.
Looking back to where we came ashore on Wilkins Lake
Jeffrey thaws out after spendng three hours
roaming the forest for a lost item
It was satisfying to hear the winds howl and the trees creak and branches snap in the wind, all the while inside the tent we didn't feel a drop of wind, just the occasional pressure increase as wind buffeted the tent. I went outside at one point as nature was calling, and boy was it cold and the wind was biting into my face, I finished my business quickly and scurried back inside the warm tent.
Mike pours drinks for us as we relax and wait for dinner to thaw out
During the night Mike woke up once to load the stove up with firewood, it wasn't enough as by the time Mike woke up in the morning, the stove was stone cold and it was about -10°C in the tent. Neither Jeffrey or myself got up to feed the stove that night, as we were both too comfy in our sleeping bags. Mike was not happy with us.