January 28 - Day 1
Walking on Canoe Lake

This was a quick two night planned stay on Gill Lake via access#5, Canoe Lake. More and more I am beginning to fall in love with winter camping in Algonquin Park's interior. The solitude factor is so much higher then in the paddling season. The lack of bugs and people are great, the lack of heat, not so bad, especially when you have a heated tent to sleep in.

I arrived at the West Gate fifteen minutes late to meet Sean. My friend Sean was already there waiting, and in the car with me was Jeffrey McMurtrie, another friend who loves The Park. We greeted one another and quickly stepped into the office to acquire our permits. Kevin was the fella behind the counter that day and some time was lost as we couldn't ask enough questions of Kevin. Its always great to chat with one who wakes up everyday and goes to work in The Park.

Our permits in hand, we said our goodbyes and drove to Canoe Lake. We arrived around 10:00am to a snowy and overcast looking lake. The launching point at access#5 had been ploughed and there were even some old snowshoe tracks that went up the lake.


Sean & Jeffrey prepare to launch from access#5


Canoe Lake
Looking up Canoe Lake

By 10:40am we headed out, walking up the lake in our snowshoes. There was about a foot of snow and underneath was a thick layer of slush and finally the ice. I travelled about 200m when I stopped and pulled out my ice chisel.

I cleared away the snow and slush (I was surprised to find the slush layer was over half a foot thick) and finally hit ice. I began chiseling away and after a few short minutes had several inches dug out. I took a short break and resumed my digging. Hardly a minute later I broke through the ice, I was astonished at the lack of depth as I measured; barely seven inches of ice!

I told Sean and Jeffrey to stay well back of me as I continued onwards, I shifted my trek towards the shoreline as our course took us westward. I was concerned. Would such thin ice be able to bear the weight of the slush, snow and me and my sled passing over it?

The ice was indeed strong enough, but that wasn't the big problem though. The real problem was the slush and it was really impacting Jeffrey and Sean's progress. I was having a tough time pulling my sled as it felt like I was slogging through wet cement. Slush really is a killer. My weight was compacting the snow down through the slush layer, so that by the time Jeffrey & Sean arrived at my slush trail, they were walking in 5 inches or more of slush.

Their snowshoes were caked in the half frozen mush as it clung to them, weighing them down, progress was slow and exhausting. I didn't have it as bad, I might not be sinking into the slush as much, but I was breaking trail so I had my work cut out for me as well. Several hundred meters of this slushy nonsense and I stopped for another ice depth check.

I was at the mouth of a large bay, I figured the large open area with wind pushing into the bay would provide for cooler temps and thicker ice. To my surprise the ice depth was again just seven inches. Wow. Early Ice-out this year?

Slush trail
Jeffrey & Sean encounter heavy slush on Canoe Lake

I continued on and a few minutes later, heard some cracking under foot and grew alarmed. I stopped, unhooked my sled and walked forward a few more feet. No ice cracking. I turned around and cautiously pushed my sled back and retraced my steps, I suddenly heard more cracking and I jumped back.

While balancing myself with my ski poles, I dug away with one foot at where I heard the cracking, I cleared the snow to find slush that had turned to ice, below that was a pocket and then the the ice layer. It was the thin layer of slush that had frozen and cracked under my weight, not the lake ice itself. Relief flooded through me and I hooked up my sled and carried on. Only about 400m more to go till we reached the trail off the lake.

It took us over 90 minutes to reach the portage to Sam Lake. I figure it probably took us forty minutes longer then it should have. It was the slush's fault! I waited for Jeffrey to catch-up, asking where the winter trail that he had mapped in the summertime was located. Jeffrey told me we had to climb the hill on the summer portage to the flat spot and then make a left turn onto the winter trail.
Jeffrey! I freaked out.

Jeffrey had not mentioned anything about us having to climb any hills to
get to the winter trail. I had assumed (wrongly) that the winter trail started at some level spot on the lake. I looked up the steep climb (Steep for a sled, not a canoe) with trepidation. I waited till Sean caught up and started up. Not ten steps and I needed a push…it was just too much weight pulling up through too much slope and snow. I busted one then a second eye-screw that my towing harness was attached to on the sled. I unhooked myself and re-rigged my harness to the sled.

sam lake portage
This hill might not look like much to the average canoeist, but its a tough one via sled


portage signage
The portage signage denoting the trail length to Sam Lake

It was starting to get frustrating and Jeffrey decided he had better scout the trail ahead. Soon, I left my sled behind, with Sean working his way off the lake. I followed Jeffrey for perhaps 200 meters along his 'winter' trail. The damn thing kept climbing and climbing. Now I know how my friend Mike must've felt about me when we went to Wilkins Lake the winter before. There was a climb up to the lake at the end that I hadn't mentioned to him. It had been a real tough climb.

We weren't even halfway to Sam Lake, let alone Gill Lake. I found a semi-large clearing in the bush and said this is it, no more, I'm tired we are setting up camp here. Jeffrey agreed and I headed back down the trail as Sean was making his way up the never-ending climb, cursing. I told Sean that we had had enough and were setting up camp here in the bush, just a little farther ahead. Sean was elated and trekked onwards as I passed him by to retrieve my sled.

I arrived back at our soon to be 'camp', it was 12:30pm and we were so exhausted, the slush had done us all in. We had been at it for two hours and it felt more like five. For the next two hours we lurched around the bush setting up the tent, loading all our gear into the tent, collecting and sawing firewood and kindling.

canoe lake
Making Landfall: Looking back at Canoe Lake as I started my climb up from shore

Around 5:30pm we settled into our tent, with the stove chugging away filling our tent with heat as we had a few refreshments and peeled off layers of clothing, dinner wasn't far behind.

Many times the stove went out as the wood didn't flame too well. All the wood that had been gathered was maple. I guess the maple was all wet with frozen sap and snow, as it had been fallen trees that had been gathered. I don't like to take standing dead trees, but in this case maybe we should've as we had very little heat in the tent to speak of, the wet maple just wasn't catching.

My thermometer read the outside temperature as -9°C, so it wasn't too cold out, still the lack of proper heat was annoying, we weren't freezing, but we weren't toasty warm either. By about 10pm I went to sleep, Jeffrey the snore master had long since fallen into slumber. Sean went to sleep too but soon both he and I were trading one-liners, until we both drifted off to sleep, the stove finally chugging up some heat.

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