Thursday, February 18, 2010

Valentines day and Nistowiak Falls by Snowshoe

Everyone's attention was on the weather as each group arrived in La Ronge the night before we were to leave for a three day snowshoeing trip to see Nistowiak Falls in northern Saskatchewan. Over the previous three days the forcasted temperatures were dropping dangerously close to the groups agreed upon temperature at which we would rethink our plans. The weather network was originally forecasting highs for the weekend of -5 C and lows of only -15 C. Boy were they wrong! Saturday morning we woke in La Ronge to -25 C but it was too late to turn back now, we were already packed and on our way to Stanley Mission where our adventure was to begin.

After some mis-communications with the folks that we were to leave our vehicles with we decided to try the RCMP detachment to see if we could leave our vehicles with them. Mathew, the Constable that I talked to was very friendly and helpful and full of questions about our trip. He agreed to let us leave the vehicles at the detachment and gave us a ride down to the lake in the northern version of a police cruiser which was a great big 4X4 Chev quad cap. Bryan and Bob ended up sitting in the back behind plate glass and bars where there the doors have no inside handles.

We quickly organized our equipment, dawned our harnesses and after a quick group photo we headed off into the wilds. As usual on winter trips such as this there is the inevitable equipment failures and breakdowns that occur once you're underway, knots come untied, loads shift, and adjustments need to be made to clothing in order to regulate your body temperature. The last thing you want to do is to start sweating when it's well below freezing.

Stanley Mission is situated on a constriction of the Churchill River which means there is a fair bit of current that flows past the town site. In the summer this current is hardly noticeable but in the winter it prevents the lake from freezing over completely and a large patch of open water could be seen from a good distance away. A thick dark grey fog hung in the air just above the open water which is sign in the high arctic to that suggests that an open lead is located under the fog patch. It's funny how the same signs can be applied further south.

The trial was in good shape considering the lack of snow on the ground this year. As we plodded along we had to be careful not to step on roots, dirt and rocks that were hidden by only a skiff of snow. These obstacles are hard on the new style of snowshoe with metal crampons. In the beginning the trail follows a creek that winds it's way through the hills but eventually turns from the creek and heads over land. Traveling in the north in the winter allows you to see that land from another perspective. We are so used to paddling by in the summer in our canoes not really thinking about what's behind the curtain of trees at the waters edge but in the winter you have the opportunity to travel over the land and see the places that would other wise be missed. Places like the Beer Bottle Bog that isn't named on the map but has the shape of a beer bottle. We finally stopped on the lee side of a point on Bow Lake for lunch. This point is the 2/3 point between the start of the trip and Iskwatikan Lake where we were camp for the next 3 days. Even though we were about 2/3 of the way to our destination for that day we still had a large granite outcropping that would provide a 40 meter elevation gain, that extends for km's in a north-easterly direction that was blocking our way. It was a long slow climb.

Once on the other side we entered Iskwatikan Lake where we met a nice local couple and thier children. They were on their way from Stanley to their cabin on Big White Moose Lake where they were to spend the week smoking and drying moose meat. We talked for a while and gleaned some information about the ice conditions and some areas that we will want to avoid due to thin ice. Always take the advice of locals when it is offered not just as advice but as a sign of respect for the people that live in the land that you are traveling through.

The day time temperatures were warm especially with the sun beating down on us and reflecting off of the snow. Many of us managed to get sun burnt faces but as the sun began to set the temperatures began to drop. We had found a great place to camp in a small cove on the north shore of Iskwatikan Lake with an abundance of standing dead black spruce for fire wood but we were unprepared for the cold evening to come and had to keep cutting and splitting wood for the fire. On the second night we were better prepared and we all spent time gathering, cutting and splitting wood that would last that evening as well as the following morning. That first night the temperature dropped to -30C and the following morning was pretty rough with many people chilled to the bone.

But after a slow start we were ready to head for the falls. Again the sun was bright but the air was still cold, we were lucky that the wind stayed down or it would have been very cold. We had traveled 12km to our campsite yesterday that left 16km's from camp to the falls and back. We were lightly loaded and made good time as we made our way long the lake ice.

What can I say about Nistowiak Falls in the winter other than it is truly stunning! If you have seen it in the summer you know how beautiful it is but that's nothing compared to the falls in the winter. The water pounding down on the rocks below produce a great deal of spray that covers everything, the trees, the rocks and the shear rock face on the other side. Words can not describe it. The day was continuing to warm and we stayed long enough to have a quick lunch. We also saw two mink swimming around in the open water above the falls.

The sun rises and sunsets were amazing. The sun set in the west was very different to the sunrise in the east due to the difference in skylines that lent to their different characteristics. The second night was much milder but even so we decided to spend it in the warmth of Bryan's hot tent that was heated by a wood stove. It was warm and comfortable inside and between the bouts of laughter the odd comment was made "why didn't we spend last night in here?"

The third day was our last day in the woods and we woke to much milder temperatures, the weather had turned and the day was to be warm, sunny and nice for our trip out. Unfortunately we couldn't spend too much time making our way out. It was family day and we didn't know how late the RCMP detachment would be open if at all, in order to retrieve the keys to our vehicles. After a long, hard day of pulling, the hills are steeper on the way out, we made it to the detachment with 20 minutes to spare. All was well. All there was left to do was pack up our gear and head south to our warm beds.

Our group consisted of Bob, who pulled a pulk with our food and water all the way to the falls and back from camp; Laurie who contributed some of the best cookies around even though they were frozen; Mike, the ice chopping machine; Bryan who brought the hot tent which was much appreciated; Zoe, my girl friend, whom I'm very proud of for enduring the cold and a machine when it comes to sawing wood for the fire and myself.

The laughter around the camp fire sounded far into the night and even the wolves came by to check out what they were missing.

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