At Last! Winter trekking on Lake Opeongo!
Of all the winter camping trips into Algonquin Park, this was the one I was most excited about. Lake Opeongo is Algonquin Park's largest lake, offering the canoeist many days if not weeks of excitement to explore her many bays and sandy beaches at leisure.
With winter though the game changes entirely; trading my paddle for a ski pole, my canoe for snowshoes. I've always wanted to explore Lake Opeongo in winter yet with road access to the access point closed during this time, one had to trek in on foot 6km just to get to the access point on the lake. This arrangement has never seemed viable for me to start a trip and so I never attempted it.
One day my friend Mike emails me to notify me that on the official park web site there was an indication that Opeongo Road to the access point would be ploughed all winter!
I contacted park staff, asking if the road was indeed ploughed and if it was permissible for us to park overnight at the access point, as we had wanted to launch an interior winter camping trip from there. The answer was "Yes". Bless you, Thank You! I was given specific instructions on where to park and then the fun began: the flurry of emails back and forth, planning our trip, readying supplies, etc.
We arrived at the West gate shortly before 9am, where we found a staff member already there on duty as we walked into the warm office. We greeted each other and discussed our itinerary with the fellow behind the desk. I knew the attendant from many past visits and enjoyed his storytelling of park lore as he shared a few new stories with us for a few minutes. After this we were wished a great trip and headed out on our way to Opeongo Road with our permits in hand.
We arrived at access#11 just before 10am and it was snowing lightly, the weather was grey looking and not a soul was to be seen. The temperature didn't seem too cold and Mike reported it to be around -6°C, pretty nice temperatures!
We began to unload our equipment and then I grabbed my ice chisel and walked out onto the ice with trepidation; I had been up to Canoe Lake three weeks previously on another winter trip, to what I considered to be risky ice conditions, only 6 to 7 inches of ice was detected at that time.
In fact our trip was supposed to be the weekend before but we decided to postpone it due to unusual weather conditions: Rain with temperatures around +8°C remaining above 0°C overnight with more rain the following day, then high winds with gust approaching 90km/h then a sharp drop in temperatures, threatening to change all that slushy snow into slippery ice conditions. No thanks!
I walked out nearly 80m from shore, making sure I was well out in the middle of the bay and began chiselling the ice. After a few minutes and nine inches of ice depth with no signs of water, I decided to head back and resume packing my gear and report my findings; The previous weekend's melt and re-freezing did the lake ice well, adding several inches of hard ice on top and with very little snow cover on the ice. What snow was left over was hardened crust and was found to be easy to walk on. So much so that all I would need is crampons for my boots for the icy sections; our snowshoes were tied to our sleds. Poor Scott had crampons on his snowshoes but not his boots.
By 10:30am we were ready to depart. Scott and I both had one sled and Mike had two sleds, both were hooked together - hauling quite the load he was, but it was on a flat surface, so that was ok, there was no way he could have done that in the bush. Part of the problem was that my stove and tent took up so much room on my sled that some of my other gear had to go on another sled. I am looking forward to getting a longer sled put together one year as to decrease my dependance on a second sled.
The going was easy and although I had crampons on my boots I still slipped on the ice occasionally as they where mounted under the ball of my foot, not the heel. More then once I came close to landing on my behind if it were not for the ski poles in hand. Scott handled the ice fairly well without crampons.
Twenty minutes later we reached a bend where I had happened to be just four months earlier in a canoe and was forced to turn back due to strong winds and waves. Now, there was no waves and very little wind, just lots of dark and deep looking ice. I didn’t want to have to be turned back again and I wanted to make sure the ice was safe; It was time to break out the ice chisel and do an ice-depth check.
Mike started first, furiously smashing the chisel into the ice. Next came my turn, then Scott's. At one point we heard a hollow sound as Scott dug away at the ice. We knew we were close to getting to the water. Finally a few minutes later, Mike broke through and water flooded the hole. The measurement? Fourteen inches deep! Ten inches more then the required minimum in my book. Sweet! We continued around the bend and headed up the lake passing by Wolf Island along the way.
As we walked up the lake amid the patchwork of ice and snow we could see much evidence of the strengthening and thickening of the ice through many cracks in different layers of the ice.
By 11:40am we had reached the vicinity of Bates Island. We pulled out the map and began to examine it and make the final decision on our destination. After mulling over the map and taking into account our time from the access point, it was decided to camp in the bush in the bay to the northwest of Bates Island. There, the bay had several islands in it, offering a fine view, while being protected from the winds out of the Northwest. Also, if there should be any other visitors to the lake, we would be out of the way, secluded in a tiny corner of the lake.
Decision made, we trekked on and twenty-five minutes later made landfall. I unhooked my sled and walked into the forest though a clearing. We located a suitable clearing about 150m back from the shore just below a ridge, which offered some protection from a west wind.
The next few hours were spent setting up our camp. As expected the snow really wasn't good for driving our snow stakes into, as the snow had the consistency of sand, it was very granular. Most of our tent lines were attached to tree trunks, stumps and two posts were put up for the door of the tent, so as to string our lines to. After this was accomplished, we 'snowed' the tent in, piling snow onto the snow flaps, insulating the tent and securing the tent walls. Next, snow was dug out down to the ground in which the tent stove was to be placed. We then took a break and then decided to collect some firewood. Once this was done, we assembled and moved our cots and all of our sleeping gear into the tent. I then set-up the stove as Mike & Scott collected more firewood from atop the nearby ridge.
Just after 3pm we were all set-up and it was time to get the stove going and take pictures, and have a drink and to toast our arrival; We had made it!
By 5:30pm the chilli I had brought for our first night's meal was in the pot on the stove and for the next two hours was left to defrost and warm up as we stirred the chilli occasionally. The chilli was finally served just before 7pm and there was too much of it (As usual) as we had a fourth member of our team cancel out on us. I served the chilli with white tortilla chips and a bag of shredded cheddar cheese along with some deforested dinner rolls, the meal went over very well and all of us were left stuffed with the hearty and heavy meal. The only complaint was that it didn't seem cold enough outside for the bowls of hot chilli. Next time I'll request -25°C temperatures!
Stepping out of the tent into the cool night air was made pleasant by Mike's inclusion of an authentic railway lantern passed down through his family. It burned lamp oil and gave off a very orange warm glow. It added tremulously to the atmosphere of the camp while outside at nighttime. Nice touch Mike!
As the evening deepened Mike howled for wolves but received no answer. After dinner we had a few drinks and by 10 pm I drifted off to sleep to the sound of the lake, as it made many 'bloops' under the blanket of ice. Some of the 'bloops' could be felt in the ground as the ice shifted and cracked though-out the night; The cold of the night contracting the ice with water rushing in to fill the new cracks, thereby making the ice stronger.