If you ask anyone of us about the trip, the first thing they will tell you is that it was cold! Stupid “F-ing” cold! Even I had to admit that the first day and night was a tough one. I’m sure that almost everyone was beginning the wonder what the hell we were doing, heading off over a frozen lake into a head wind that was gusting to over 40 km per hour that dropped the temperature to below -30 C. Though these thoughts were on everyone’s minds, no one wanted to be the person to give in to the cold.
The previous month and a half was spent in anticipation and preparation for this camping trip with the intention of spending New Years Eve in the silence and solitude of the boreal forest in northern Saskatchewan. We were to drive up to our star point on December 29th and return on January 1st. Many conversations and emails bounced back and forth between Bryan and I as to the destination. We knew that it had to be in the north, with very little possibility of encountering anyone else; we were looking for peace and quiet. After spending many hours pouring over maps and after changing the destination half of a dozen times it was agreed that we would head to McKay Lake which is 60 km’s north of La Ronge. Actually the deciding factor was some very good local advice from my good friends Mick and Ellen who live at Lamp Lake and a chance internet meeting with the good folks at Paws n Paddles. If you are at all interested in canoeing or dog sledding Miriam and Quincy offer guided canoe tours in the summer and customized dog sled tours in the winter. They proved to be an invaluable source of information about areas to watch for unsafe ice in the McKay Lake area and ultimately inspired us to choose that area.
Like I said it was dam cold pretty well the entire time we were in the woods. The warmest temperature I saw was on the last day when the thermometer read -22 C. The nights were consistently hovering around the -32 C mark. Even with the extreme cold I still feel that we lucked out with the weather. The first day was very windy making it feel much colder than it really was but the wind died down for the duration of our stay and there was hardly a cloud in the sky. If it had remained windy we could have been much worse off. Out of interest, upon returning from the north, Bryan and I tested the accuracy of the thermometer that I had along. It is accurate to within .5 of a degree C.
As it so often does on camping trips, the weather dictates our behaviour and this trip was no different. After traveling the 6 km’s across McKay Lake we came upon Miriam and Quincy with their dogs, they were shuttling supplies to their cabin at the north end of Bartlett Lake. We had no intentions of going further and had started searching for a suitable campsite when Quincy suggested that a clearing only 100 ft along the winter portage would make as suitable place to camp. After a quick scout around we realized that this spot was about the only spot that wasn’t choked with deadfall. Our decision was made easy, by all the readily accessible fire wood; we would be able to keep the fires burning and stay warm. On December 29th at Latitude 55 degrees 28 minutes, there is only 7 hrs and 46 min of day light and we were running out quickly. Tents were set up in short order and much firewood was brought in and cut to length. The evening was spent around the fire, visiting.
The nights were very comfortable for Zoe and me. Our sleeping bag system worked fantastic, almost too well. We had two -20 degree mummy bags which we zipped together, inside that we each had our own -7 degree bag, and inside that we had a vapour barrier. Being wrapped in 6 inches of down sleeping bags is very warm, so warm in fact that the vapour barriers just made us sweat. Though we were warm, our main concern was the morning; it was going to be very unpleasant emerging from our bags damp to great the extremely cold morning temperatures. We pulled the barriers off and tossed them aside. I’m sure that they would have worked if we hadn’t had the -7 bags.
Day two was spent staying warm, preparing an adequate amount of fire wood that would see us through the day and long evening. It’s amazing how the cold robs you of your desire to do things that you would otherwise think nothing of. Most of us were content with just staying around camp and staying warm. Andrew did a bit of ice fishing but didn’t catch anything; he must have had a bite because his bait was gone. Shortly before supper Bryan and Rob went for a short snowshoe to have a look around while the rest of us stayed back in camp to prepare the evenings meal. For this trip we decided to divide into two groups, each group preparing a group meal. I like this arrangement since it means that I don’t have to cook every night. When our trips are planned as a base camp style trip Bryan and Rob usually bring their hot tent and stove, so after supper when the temperatures began to drop we retreated to the tent to stay warm, share some beverages, and share some good stories.
New Year’s Eve (day three) brought blue skies, calm winds, and a sense of relaxation. I’m not sure about the others but I was starting to become acclimatized to the cold, I wasn’t feeling it as much and I was feeling quite relaxed and content. Everyone else must have been feeling it also because during the day the whole group went out for a snowshoe. Our destination was to have a look at Bartlett Lake. What little energy the sun had in it warmed our faces as we made fresh track in the snow. On days like that there is no better place to be than in the north. Upon arriving back at camp we set about tidying up and preparing for the new year. Miriam had stopped by the day before with a dog sled load of pre-cut wood and a jack pine candle. A jack pine candle is a 5 foot jack pine log which has two cuts, made with a chain saw, running the length forming an “X” in the end. Birch bark is stuffed in the end with the cuts and the whole thing is set in the snow like a candle and the top is lit. We lit it after dark and watched it burn to celebrate the new year. As I wandered in the woods the day before I came across a rabbit trail so before dark Andrew and I set a few snares to see if we could catch anything. The following morning we checked the sets and as luck would have it, we caught two. We quickly field dressed them and cut them up. In addition to the curried dishes that Bryan, Rob, and Valerie provided for supper that night, everyone contributed whatever fixings they could to the pot, and I made rabbit stew. The funniest quote came from Andrew while eating his rabbit, “ah, with every bite I feel more like a man.” Again, the evening was spent sharing beverages and stories in the hot tent. Living out doors takes its Toll and we didn’t make it to midnight to see the new year in. At around 10:30 we figured it was 12 somewhere so we packed it in for the night.
As it often seems to happen, the nicest day is always on the last day and this trip was no different. Clouds had moved in overnight which insolates the earth and made for a fantastic morning sky. The entire eastern sky was painted with amazing reds, yellows, and oranges but soon after the sun had risen the clouds dissipated and it was sunny and calm once again. We would be returning home that day which meant it was a travel day and we needed to get an earlier start. I hate these days, the days when the camp is taken down, I always feel sad to be leaving. The north is where my interests lie and it’s in the north where I am the most comfortable, I feel healthy and strong and my mind is clear. There are no distractions of society and no hoops to jump through, just a pure life and sense of being. I can’t stand to be apart from it.
It’s interesting but when it comes time to pack up camp, nothing seems to fit like it did when you packed at home. It must be all the frost/moisture in the materials that makes most items more bulky, for this reason, Zoe and I purposely loosely pack the gear at the beginning of the trip; that way at the end there will still be enough space to fit it all for the return trip. The return trip was sunny and warm and the group took their time, pausing for breaks and to savour the last few sights along the way. The group was an eclectic mix of people with varying levels of outdoor skill and I enjoyed everyone’s company and the laughter that was shared.
Thanks for making the New Year’s winter camping trip so much fun; Zoe, Bryan, Rob, Valerie, Tara, Andrew, and of course Kaya.